Why 19th century figureheads are still relevant to marketing today

Once upon a time, the word figurehead was not a pejorative, as it tends to be today. Today, we refer to someone as a figurehead if they’re highly visible but relatively powerless, like the Vice President of the United States or the British royal family. Once upon a time, however, a figurehead was not only an important word, it was a marketing word.

Turn back the clock to the age of sail and wooden ships, as I did recently on a visit to Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport. The figurehead was a literal fixture of wooden ships, a large carved ornament that was typically placed on the front of a ship:

Mystic Seaport figureheads

What purpose did these ornate works of art serve? They were the 19th century equivalent of corporate logos for the merchant vessels they were mounted on. These figureheads were the brands of the ships.

How did they work? Imagine you’re walking along the New York City harbor, looking for a vessel. During the age of sail, many ships tended to look very similar, like this fleet of schooners:

Image from page 178 of "The photographic history of the Civil War : in ten volumes" (1911)

Now imagine that literacy isn’t what it is today, and that 1 out of 5 people couldn’t read at all. How would you tell someone to meet your ship? You’d have to give them some image-based reference, in the same way that Bostonians tell people how to navigate around Kenmore Square by using the giant Citgo sign as a reference.

If you said to someone, go meet the David Crockett at Pier 39, they might struggle to get there. If you told them to meet the David Crockett, the ship with the pioneer holding a rifle on the front, at Pier 39, chances are they’d be much more successful at finding the ship:

Mystic Seaport figureheads

The figurehead was an icon for its era, the way that customers could tell your ship apart from the many others that looked very similar to it.

How is this relevant to marketing today? Think about all the different digital “ships” we “sail” that look identical in bulk:

Our resumes look very similar.
Our websites look very similar.
Our business cards look very similar.
Our social media profiles look very similar.

The 19th century’s lesson on figureheads is more important than ever. What visually sets you apart from everything and everyone else? Instead of a single harbor crowded with hundreds of ships, we have social networking sites crowded with hundreds of millions of profiles. Not only do you need a unique selling proposition, you need a unique or easily distinguished visual presence as well.

As the ship owners did in the 19th century, so you should today invest in good design, good photography, good imagery. If you don’t have the money, invest the time to learn the skill yourself. Otherwise, your “passengers” will never make it aboard in the first place.

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Marketing assumptions and misconceptions

As part of a Twitter chat I did with Citrix* GoToWebinar, I was asked a series of questions about marketing today. One of the ones that stood out to me was:

This is an important question, because too many marketers are working with outdated misconceptions about what still works in marketing. Here are just a few examples:

On-Page SEO: Very few things you do on your website matter when it comes to ranking well. Things like keyword density (beyond what would be normal speech), bolded keywords and phrases, H1/H2 tags, etc. matter very little these days. What does matter? Google and other search engines have continued to weed out technical tricks, so what’s left is relevant, fresh, diverse content that’s mobile-friendly and popular with audiences.

Email Marketing: The idea that you can just send haphazard emails and still achieve any kind of results is long past. Consumers are now so overwhelmed from messaging in every direction that mediocre or bad emails never get opened. For far too many marketing programs, email marketing is a bolt-on, an accessory, an afterthought rather than a core part of strategy. If you don’t intend to commit significant content creation resources to email marketing, it’s better not to do it at all.

Social Media: Build it and they will come has been the unspoken mantra of too many marketers, but that ship has long since sailed. Social media today resembles broadcast media far more than a virtual water cooler, but marketers who still treat social like another checkbox are going to see what few returns they get vanish.

However, the biggest misconception that marketers still operate under by far?


The myth of disproportionate results.

This marketing legend is the bane of every data-driven marketer in the world, the legend of the marketing fairy who blesses your average efforts with results that vastly exceed what you put into them. Call it “going viral” or “the ultimate growth hack” or whatever variant you like, the disproportionate results fantasy remains strong in the minds of many marketers. Chasing it instead of investing in your marketing and setting expectations that scale with what you can put into it is a guaranteed path to frustration and unhappiness.

There is no magic wand, no easy button. The only surefire way to see increasing results is to invest increasing resources – time, money, people – in your marketing.

Thanks to the Citrix GoToWebinar team for the great questions!

Disclosure: Citrix is a client of my employer, SHIFT Communications. While I was not compensated directly for my participation or given any in-kind benefit, I receive indirect financial benefit through my employment.

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Life lesson from a salt shaker

Salt shaker

When I sat down to breakfast one morning in Honolulu, I noticed that the salt shaker’s cap was very loose.

Ah, I thought to myself, something in the world that needs a bit of fixing; I put the cap on correctly. A minor triumph to start the day, restoring order to the universe.

A moment later, I tried to use the salt shaker and nothing came out.

It turns out that Honolulu’s morning air was so dense and humid that all the salt stuck together. The previous occupants of the table (or perhaps the wait staff) had loosened it so that you could pour a clump out and sprinkle the salt with your fingers.

This is a small life lesson on the power of delusion, of seeing the world how you want it to be instead of seeing it how it really is. I saw the salt shaker as “wrong” when in fact it was perfectly right for the environment it was in. I wanted things to be different than they were instead of understanding why the world worked in that way in the first place.

It’s a small, painless cautionary tale for everything in life: see the world the way it is, not the way you want it to be. Once you do, you might understand the world a little bit better. I certainly did.

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