Welcome to the Marketing Hall of Fame. The first three entrants have reached Immortal status. Each were born into humble beginnings but triumphed through hard work, genius ideas, and great timing. They also seem to have gotten the “right people on the bus”, as Jim Collins says in “Good to Great” (I’ll write about that book at some point since many of its principles are what lie behind many Hall of Famers’ success). Some may argue that these are just people, not marketeers. Au contraire! Some of the world’s best marketing pros never earned an MBA and can’t build an ROI spreadsheet. The only three-letter-acronym they live is TCB, baby!
Immortal Hall of Fame Winner: the Dalai Lama
Threw you for a loop with that one, huh? The current Lama was born into a peasant family in a remote area of Tibet before his discovery and subsequent training as a Buddhist monk. He was called upon to accept leadership during a time of polital unrest, and played a key role in inspiring his followers to stand against the invading Chinese. Unfortunately, the Lama had to take it on the lam to avoid having his head chopped off and went into exile.
Fast forward to the late 80s… his Holiness did the unthinkable: he came to the US. Prior to the current Lama, Buddhism was mostly seen as an Asian philosophy and religion. Through his many efforts as a speaker, political activist, and (later) author, the Lama has brought Buddhism to the West. He also has a website, podcasts, t-shirts, and actively embarks upon speaking tours. This impressive mix of tactical tools is backed up by strong messaging, easy-to-understand concepts, and application to the life of modern people. He also granted Bill Murray total consciousness on his death bed, so he’s got that going for him.
The Lama has successfully made Buddhism hip. Take that, Pat Robertson!
Immortal Hall of fame Winner: Oprah Winfrey
Here’s a woman who is so well-recognized that she doesn’t even need a last name. When Oprah speaks, everyone listens (or else!). A rural Southerner by birth, the Big O rules over the airwaves from her Chicago-based kingdom. After cutting her teeth in smaller markets, Oprah made the move to the windy city in the early 1980s, dominating her timeslot almost from the very moment she stepped on stage. Her every-woman appeal and openness appealed to a demographic of women who were probably pretty sick of hearing Phil Donahue tell them how hard they had it.
After going into national syndication a couple of years later, Oprah blew up (literally and figuratively). Her personal battles with weight were well-publicized and, rather than shying away from the attention, Oprah ran with it. The honesty paid off and more people began to tune in. As the show evolved, the format moved away from trashy tabloid chatter and into a refined yet still personal interview & discussion program. Since she was now running the production house, O had free reign over it all. She also began pulling in her other passions such as reading, the arts, and cooking, promoting pet projects and business partners through the show. The crowd continued to gobble it all up, buying every book and watching every movie Oprah told them to check out. And why not? She has taste! Oprah’s Book Club became the indicator for sales success. Her brand extension into monthly publications has earned her a staggering amount of cash while further pushing her popularity. She is so good that she made Dr. Phil a star (and lord knows he shouldn’t be).
Whether she’s buying volcanos in Maui or begging Tom Cruise to get off her sofa, Oprah is always in control and has had an indelible impact upon the American experience through shrewd marketing & business practices.
Immortal Hall of Fame Winner: Richard Branson
Ah, Branson. He’s my personal idol and marketing sherpa. I would love to work for this guy. I’d just sit at his feet all day and listen because his sh*t is wired tight.
Beginning in business as a teenager, Sir Richard leveraged his love of music to build an accidental empire. He went from punk kid, to newsletter publisher, mail-order record business, to shop owner, to producer, to airline owner, to megal mogul by the time he was 30. While some feel he just plain got lucky with his first global success (the release of “Tubular Bells” aka the Exorcist theme), though it was hard work and smart moves that has kept this guy a winner. But the secret in his sauce, in my opinion, is that the guy is BOLD! How many people would have the cojones to call their enterprise “Virgin”? How many would personally stick their own necks out for crazy publicity stunts of every sort? How many would have the chutzpah to even attempt to launch an intergalactic travel division? How many would be crazy enough to have Mariah Carey hang out on his private island for a week? (a week with Mimi? I don’t think I could stomach five minutes with that loon. Sir Richard is a brave man!)
I could rhapsodize about this guy all day long. While he’s lately taken on a self-effacing, cult of personality sort of bent, the fact is that Branson is The Man when it comes to marketing. He knows what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, and what results it’s go to yield. Call me, Sir Richard! Let’s do lunch (on that private island of yours).