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.

My Very Own Community Superfans


Here’s a post of mine for Lithium from 2012 on the subject of superfans.

It’s 1927. Meet three brothers from Southeastern Kansas. Lynn is away at medical school, Glen has just gone off to college. He’s pledged a fraternity and plans to major in business. Raymond is still in high school in their home town, Fredonia.

Suddenly, their father dies.

Together, the brothers decide the two key family objectives are to keep Lynn in medical school and Raymond in high school. It’s Glen who must sacrifice his education to return to Fredonia and become the sole breadwinner for the three boys and their mother. Glen secures a job as a janitor at the local bank.

Glen has a lot of good ideas (valuable content) about how to make the bank work better and offers them up to the current owner in exchange for shares (rewards). The owner agrees.

Fast forward 18 months. The market crashes, banks are failing left and right. For weeks, Glen and the current bank owner meet clandestinely at night in back alleys to strategize about how to get through the next 24 hours. They don’t want to alert the townspeople to the fact that this 20-something whippersnapper, Glen (Community Superfan #1), is really the one at the helm of their tiny flailing ship in an epic storm.

Somehow, The State Bank of Fredonia makes it through without dashing against the rocks. Lynn finishes medical school and returns to become Fredonia’s first dedicated primary care physician (Community Superfan #2). The brothers then send Raymond off to both medical school and surgical residency. Raymond returns to become Fredonia’s first surgeon (Community Superfan #3).

Throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, every Fredonian who had a child, an illness, an injury, a checking account, a mortgage, a farm loan, or a death in the family (read: everyone) did business with the Beals. In these years, Glen owned the bank outright and spent his afternoons on the farms of his customers. A crop duster would fly overhead and Glen would say, “Mr. Green, we need to get you one of those!”

In 1952, our little janitor spoke to the US Congress and helped pass a farm bill that impacted three states. Dr. Lynn’s obituary, written in 1974 by a patient, recounted the many, many times he delivered babies for a basket of eggs or a cherry pie.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that you really can find folks in the world who are willing to contribute—even sacrifice—so enormously to benefit their community, but they are out there. At Lithium, we call them Superfans. They are the tireless, passionate, motivated brand fans who spend thousands of hours online helping others. This very small percentage of the population can drive enormous growth and real business change. Lynn, Glen and Raymond Beal were 3 passionate, committed men who affected great change in a town of about 4,500. That’s .07% (point-o-seven-percent) of the population.

Dr. Lynn was my maternal Grandfather, Glen and Raymond my great uncles. I’ll never forget the legacy they left of driving great positive change for so many, motivated simply by a culture of service—of giving back.

Yes, Virginia, there really are Superfans. They are nothing new. Humanity has been relying upon them since the dawn of time. Social software like Lithium just gives them greater reach—a chance to do more good for more people every day.

Crowdsourcing: Proof that Ayn Rand Got (at least some of) It Wrong?

ayn-rand-660_0When Paul Ryan appeared on the Republican ticket last fall, two familiar words burst onto the scene like popcorn: Ayn Rand.

Like for many others, Ayn Rand burst into my life at 19, and I lapped up her entire cannon like a plate of cream. Twice. But the world has changed a lot since I fell for the ideal of hyper-individualism.

It’s not that the Internet Age proves she got it wrong. In fact, it shows that Ayn Rand got a whole lot right. She said the human will is amazing and that freedom and opportunity make it flourish.

Working in social technology, I see how right she was. There’s a deep passion for human ingenuity in this business. Where the stakes are high, the talent is top notch and the work product is fantastic.

Yet there’s another group that plays just as important a role in the Information Age: The crowd.

I can’t help but wonder what Ayn Rand would have to say about the phenomenon of crowdsourcing where the work product comes from an undefined group of mostly (pardon my language, Ayn) volunteers?

Crowdsourcing is the process of tapping the collective for ideas. Turns out, the collective gives them up like gumballs, asks little or nothing in return, and before you know it we have wonderful things like Apache Software and Wikipedia.

The Internet Age shows us what Ayn Rand would call an irrational force—the desire to serve—rocks! I can get Wikipedia on my iPhone instantly for free. The Encyclopedia Britannica, before it went out of print, was cumbersome, expensive, and made the book shelves sag.

When Ayn Rand asks who should benefit from our output, she offers two choices: You or me. Today’s answer is both. The power of the crowd is proof. Sometimes providing value for others is personal gain.

I’d like to think a John Galt of this century would have been among the first to spot the power of the crowd. He dedicated his life, after all, to the pursuit of an inexhaustible supply of cheap energy.

This article was originally aired as a KQED listener perspective.