The Corleone Family Brand Nation


I had the occasion to watch Godfathers Part I and II recently. Start to finish, without interruption. Although I’ve caught pieces of each many times over the years flipping through cable, I can’t say how long it’s been since I’ve watched the entire story unfold.

This time, it occurred to me that this is a story of watching the Corleone brand get built, achieve enormous influence, and eventually decline.

What happened?

Corleone Began as a Social Brand

We meet our brand visionary, Vito Corleone, at his daughter’s wedding—at the peak of his power—with  so many people packed onto the Long Island estate they’re crawling up the walls.

Yet there’s an intimacy here. This is a vibrant community of interconnected people, all feeling a strong sense of belonging to the Don—and because of this, to each other. The opening sequence of our story begins with an introduction to the Corleone brand nation.

But it’s not until Part II that we see the Corleone nation’s seed, its roots, how it was cultivated and why it flourished. Part II has always been my favorite of the two. Perhaps this is why.

The first most striking thing about Vito in the early years is that he’s an enormously social animal. Dropped at Ellis Island without connections or a word of English at age 9, by the time he’s a young adult, this man is dialed in. Another 30 years, and he’s a man of colossal influence.

“You ever need a favor, you come, we talk,” we hear the future Don as a young man again and again in the streets of early 20th Century New York. Vito knew how to run a social business. Building relationships with the grocers, the street vendors, his neighbors—perhaps the original Dale Carnegie, our Vito knows how to win friends and influence people.

 The Corleone Brand Delivered Excellent Experiences

But Vito knows it’s not just about cultivating awareness. The Corleone brand is undeniably about building strong relationships by meeting expectations and over-delivering in surprising ways. When a widow from the neighborhood petitions him to speak to her landlord and overturn an eviction, Corleone not only delivers, but also gets her rent lowered by $10 a month. When his business partners are squeezed by Don Fanucci, the Black Hand, Vito offers to get Fanucci to back down. Not only does he again deliver, he disposes of the Black Hand entirely, significantly changing the day-to-day experiences of not just his partners, but the entire neighborhood.

The Corleone Brand Essence:  Loyalty

The Corleone brand was built on a culture of service. With laser focus, Vito constantly considers the world from the customer point of view.  He doesn’t think about the expense of going out of his way to provide a service for the poor widow.  He takes on enormous risk by disposing of Fanucci to benefit the neighborhood.  He sees his actions an opportunity to build loyalty—to Vito, synonymous with brand equity.

And he’s right.  In Vito’s Little Italy years, we discover beautifully how loyalty becomes the Corleone brand essence and how magically it propels brand influence.

The Height of Corleone Brand Prowess

30 years on, Vito is still the essence of loyalty. In the opening scene of Part I, we meet Vito as he is petitioned by the local undertaker to do murder for vengeance. The Don asks the man why he should do this favor—the undertaker is not a Corleone customer and he’s offended the Don in the past.

In the end, Vito decides to do business with the undertaker because he’s in the habit of building relationships, building brand equity through loyalty. (Something that will come in very handy when he needs Sonny’s mutilated body cleaned up for the funeral.)  Vito seals the deal with Sicilian affection—a kiss, an embrace, reassurances that the requisite services will be provided.

Throughout both films, we hear the phrase again and again, “provide a service”.

The Corleone brand was built on a customer-centric, culture of service, grown from the heart of loyalty. In the mature full blossom of the Corleone brand, we then see Vito outside in the sunshine, enjoying the wedding party, smiling, dancing, mixing it up with his loyal customer base—his superfans.

Life is good for the Family.


Corleone Brand Erosion

But by the 1940s, the category has matured. The competitive landscape is fierce.  As power is transferred from the aging Vito to his eldest boy, Sonny, the Corleone brand goes adrift. Sonny is obsessed with power and stamping out the competition. His decidedly uncustomer-centric decisions are motivated by the promise of quick profit. Vito warns that Sonny’s interest in entering a new category—narcotics—will alienate their loyal customer base of politicians, judges, and police. Sonny doesn’t listen.

By the late 50s, Vito and Sonny are both dead. Younger son Michael is in now control and we see the great contrast between his and Vito’s brand stewardship. Markedly unsocial, Michael’s decisions are utterly centralized, informed through interaction with only with an anointed few from an ivory tower.  The few times we see him in public—at Anthony’s first communion party, in a Havana nightclub—he barely speaks and most certainly never smiles.

Michael Corleone’s key drivers are self-protection and dominance and this now becomes the Corleone projected brand image. He seems to have no relationships with his constituency.  In fact, he seems to have no relationships whatsoever.  His perspective on the subject of loyalty has become fully warped, centered on loyalty gotten, not given—encapsulated poignantly in the new Don Corleone’s order that his own brother, poor Fredo, is murdered.

In the final sequence of this great tragic story of the rise and fall of an iconic brand, we see Michael alone on the Tahoe estate, devoid of character, standing for nothing, remembering his early years.  We flash to a scene back in New York at the dinner table when a young Michael tells older brother Sonny that he’s enlisted in the army.

Sonny is furious and demands to know why. “I want to serve my country,” young Michael replies quietly.

Slow dissolve and we are back with middle-aged Michael in Nevada who for all his wealth and power is quite clearly an empty shell. We can’t help but wonder with him, “What would the Corleone brand be now if only the culture of service had been preserved?”

This blog originally appeared on the Lithium customer community.

The Future Workplace


Very interesting podcast on the Future of Work from PRI as a follow up to a recent Time Magazine cover story exploring among other things, generational shifts in the needs and demands of labor.

Apparently Alvin Toffler was on the right track as far back as 1971 when in Future Shock he predicted a future workplace not of bureaucracies, but ad-hocracies. Of loose, impermanent associations between highly specialized individual contributors.

When I first read the book, I remember assuming that it would be the corporations that would lead the evolution toward increasingly complex, specialized networks of human resources. It seemed such an efficient, attractive prospect to the managerial mind. I don’t remember imagining that labor would be the catalyst for dissolving hierarchical institutions into interconnected resource networks. What would be in it for them? No retirement, no paid vacation, no management training, no career path.

But it turns out to be the preferred avenue for labor exchange among the young. Gen Ys are less interested in perks like health care and paid vacation and less interested in the long-term security of corporate ladder climbing – all the things corporate bureaucracies have traditionally provided. Looks like tomorrow’s work force will be negotiating mostly for increased flexibility, which smart employers will learn to use to their advantage.

Of course, a networked labor force only works if each individual contributor is strongly accountable. The good news is, lack of accountability has no place to hide in a management-labor relationship that is entirely pure. No perks. Just work.

That we can look forward to a more entrepreneurial workforce willing to take on more risk in ad-hoc relationships with employers is good. That we can look forward to a workforce who assumes personal responsibility by paying for their own health care, vacations and retirement is good. And that, by it’s very nature, this evolved workforce is more accountable – marvelous!

Twitter Value Prop: Addiction?

addictionI’ve been wondering what the Twitter value proposition to me is for some time. I get what Twitter is, and yes, I Tweet, but I’ve never been entirely sure why Twitter should matter to me. Apparently, many share in my quandry, says Silicon Valley, The Harvard Business Review, Nielsen and others.

By a number of measures, Twitter’s metrics look pretty dismal. User engagement is low and customer retention even lower. Numbers like these beg the question, what is the real and compelling value to a business or consumer in using the Twitter application?

Even the CEO says what he’s shooting for in a relationship with his audience is addiction.

The Irony of Social Media


What a week it’s been for our little blue friend. Everywhere I look, all my favorite sites and blogs are bashing the poor creature. Admittedly, I’ve done a bit of Twitter bashing myself (although I prefer to think of it as critical thought).Like what Mitch Joel has to say about the inherent “volume contradiction” in all social media. Once the volume of any given network (your Facebook friends or Twitter followers) gets to significant levels, the network is no longer “social”. (Check out what I had to say about that a few months ago in ‘Twas the Night Before Twitter Got Monetized.) What may have once been a set of one-to-one interactions by necessity becomes a series of one-to-many broadcasts.

And as a communications channel for would-be marketers, how is that any different from, say, display advertising – also a one-to-many broadcast model?

While marketers clamor to get their social media strategies in place, the irony of social media is that in order for it matter as a channel, it has to start looking like all the others.

Sustainable Publishing Online – It’s a Good Thing

internet_tacosSurprisingly courageous remarks from Jonah Bloom at Ad Age about where the publisher-advertiser-consumer relationship is going in 2009. Noting that online publishing has outgrown the amount of online advertising that might support it, Bloom thinks publishers need to find new revenue models if they expect to survive. Site has been wondering about publishers relying too much upon ad revenue for a while now and is interested to see if Bloom’s predictions for the coming year pan out. As online marketers, we’d love to see endlessly expanding ad budgets. But as online business people, we’d like to see more creative—and sustainable—online business models that break out

Web 3.0: Show Me the Money

piDespite a sincere enthusiasm for all things Internet, Site can’t help but to have noticed a lot of over-valuation going on.

Site applauds recent news from Silicon Valley that increasingly scrutinizing eyes are being put to Internet-based investments. Most notably, VCs now seem more interested in investing in companies projecting non-ad-based revenue models, citing that Accel’s early investment in Facebook might not be repeated today given the social platform’s challenges with monetization.

Making money online is attractive because it’s extremely efficient and cost-effective if done right—not because it magically happens with when traffic or even market share get large. Potty-mouth notwithstanding, Jeremy Schoemaker makes a nice case for caution when counting your Internet chickens before they are hatched in his 7 Deadly Sins of People Trying to Make Money Online.

Making money online is smart. Making smart money online is even smarter. Cheers to the portfolio managers who see past simple site popularity and look for clean, predictable and short paths to profitability when deciding how to spend investment dollars.

Even Breakthrough Brands Compete

Boy, if we only had a nickel for every time we asked a startup CEO about his competition and heard: “Really, no one. No one does what we do. We’re a breakthrough category – you know, like Google.”

Okay, we’ll grant you your big vision. Where would we all be without big vision? In the dark ages. In caves. In the name of evolution, someone among us has to think big.

But while you are busy ensuring that your offering truly is breakthrough, your new savvy sales VP will say the first order of business is to find an enemy. If you don’t define your competitive set while you craft your positioning, it’ll get defined for you when your sales team hits the streets. Better to be in front of it.

No matter how game changing your breakthough brand may be, we all still must compete in the marketplace, yes? Even if no one does what you do, with whom must you compete in order to penetrate the over-crowded awareness of your targeted customer? Who else will already be in the consideration set when you ask to be included?

If you aren’t comparing yourself thoroughly to everything remotely close to your offering, your customers are. You should know more than they do, not less. Your savvy sales VP knows that.

The slots for awareness, consideration and decisive action in the minds of the consumer are finite. As are the dollars in our pockets. We are careful about how we spend them. Your visionary value prop may very well follow in the footsteps of the automobile and the telephone, but if you want to ramp up sales quickly, skip the headache of reacting to the marketplace when it asks, “Why you instead of them?” Because it will.

The marketplace will accept you more readily if it is offered a convenient way to fit you in to an existing perceptual set. Be proactive. Anticipate the expectations of your marketplace. Know what your customers need to know about you and make it easy for them to know.

The Valuation Math Scares Me, Too


Social sites are the darling of the VC world at the moment, but a lot of people in the business are wondering about the scary valuation math. Again. Techcrunch’s coverage of Yelp’s latest and fourth – yes fourth – round of financing lured a tone of skepticism from nearly all who commented on the post. After two years and $31mm invested, the still unprofitable Yelp! is valued at $200mm. Come again? A figure twenty times the undisclosed-but-rumored-to-be sub $10mm annual revenue mark.

One of the best things that came out of the bust to my mind was that the industry learned to stop confusing eyeballs with valuation. Or has it?

Remember the documentary Internet entrepreneur is introduced by his press agent to a Rockerfeller at an event. The intro line includes, “and he’s raised over $60mm in seed capital for his venture.” To which the Rockerfeller responds, “Yeah, but does he know how to make money?”

A great idea is a great idea. The ability to develop a large audience is an impressive thing. Running a profitable business is an altogether different beast. I was hoping the near-death experience many of us went through back when would have shaken some sense into people in charge of the valuation math. We’ll see …