Branding Lessons From P.T. Barnum

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Branding Lessons From P.T. Barnum

Category : 2018

Branding is building a reputation and crafting a message about who you are and the value you bring.  Effective executive branding is built on authenticity, integrity, and delivering what you say you are.

Can a brand be built on what is not true? History would say, “Yes.” Perhaps no one more effectively built a global brand on impressions and giving people “what they want to see” than Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum. But the fact Barnum did it is not justification that his life is a model of success.

Hollywood used a generous dose of artistic license when portraying the life of The Greatest Showman. The resemblance between Hugh Jackman and P.T. Barnum is . . . nonexistent. Beyond the singing, dancing, and dazzle of the big screen, the life of P.T. Barnum leaves us an enduring lesson about branding. If you build your brand around impressions, stories, and carefully-managed deceptions, your energy must go toward maintaining the reality you create, often at the expense of truth.

Barnum was an unashamed self-promoter who, from an early age, loved notoriety. He went so far as to request an early obituary so he could read it before his death. As a 15 year-old boy, Barnum took on the support of his mother and five sisters by publishing a weekly newspaper, Herald of Freedom-and getting arrested three times for libel.

His career as a showman was launched at age 25 when Barnum introduced Joice Heth to the world, alleged to be George Washington’s nanny. While many flocked to see her, few seemed to care about the math . . . Heth would have been 160 years old in 1835. Barnum’s grand hoaxes expanded with General Tom Thumb (short because he was age 4 when he started with the show) and the Feejee Mermaid, eventually drawing 400,000 visitors a year to his museum-before he started his famous circus at age 60.

What can we learn from a life built more on fabrication than fact?

  • Notoriety is addictive. A world driven by immediate impressions, instant communication, and real-time feedback provides endless opportunities to be consumed by recognition. The number of people liking a post, viewing a photo, and following someone on a platform are measures of visibility, perhaps even popularity. They are not proof of a strong or noteworthy brand. Notoriety has an insatiable and undiscriminating appetite for attention-not truth.
  • Impressions are fueled by stories, not substance. Barnum’s display of the unusual captured attention as much because of the stories he built around his “exhibits” as the people he showcased. A brand built on impressions vs. substance requires an unending supply of new stories-usually bigger and better than those of the past.
  • It all catches up with you, in the end. Hollywood’s portrayal of Barnum was as charitable as it was creative. Behind the mystique was a man who exploited people, distorted reality, and capitalized on the gullibility of humanity for fame, opportunity, and personal gain. Barnum was capitalism at its best-and worst. His glittering success in the 19th century remains tarnished by the perspective of time in the 21st.

Barnum’s style of branding personified Nathaniel Hawthorne’s haunting reminder that, “No man [or woman] for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”