Mark Twain and Personal Branding

“Earn a character first if you can, and if you can’t, then assume one.”
– Mark Twain (pen name of Samuel Clemens)

Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain, was one of the first American writers to become a national celebrity. Clemens recognized and practiced many of the features of personal branding:

  • He wrote in a distinctive style. He adopted a downhome conversational style, a homespun flavor, full of sardonic humor, laced with folk wisdom and dialect. He made fun of fools and pompous people. He championed the virtues of plain speech and storytelling, the richness of choosing the right word (“the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning”), the clear phrase, the memorable image.
  • He assumed the visual trappings of brand image: a white suit, a cigar, a distinctive mustache.
  • He adopted a pseudonym: Mark Twain. (The phrase came from his day as a professional pilot on Mississippi riverboats. The pilot would get calls from men working a sounding line, dropped to measure the depth of the river. “Mark twain” meant two fathoms, or twelve feet. A big riverboat typically needed a fathom and a half (nine feet) or more, so “mark twain” meant the river was passable, but just barely. It seems a choice that fit Clemens’ self-deprecating persona: just enough to get by.)
  • He tried other pseudonyms early on, but abandoned them. The likes of “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab” were comical but impossible to remember. Mark Twain is punchy, plausible, memorable.
  • In addition to his novels, he published many brief pieces: speeches, articles, short stories in newspapers and magazines.
  • He pioneered new styles in literature, like the fanciful comic travelogue, and experimented with new technology, like the typewriter (Life on the Mississippi is thought to have been the first book typed before being sent to the printer).
  • Besides writing books and articles, he got out on the lecture circuit, honing his delivery skills in public presentations, meeting his public, hearing live feedback, polishing material old and new, making his name well known.
  • He knew how to speak in “sound bites,” to deliver zingers, to offer up short, quotable epigrams. (Such as: “Man is the only animal that blushes – or needs to.” Or, “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” Or, “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” Or, “Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.”)
  • He had a good understanding of book marketing, actively encouraging his publisher to push advance sales by door-to-door subscription peddlers, rather than just relying on bookstores to passively display his works.

In a 1908 speech, he talked about a conversation with Robert Louis Stevenson, talking about the role of that broad public awareness:

Robert Louis Stevenson and I, sitting in Union Square and Washington Square a great many years ago, tried to find a name for the submerged fame, that fame that permeates the great crowd of people you never see and never mingle with; people with whom you have no speech, but who read your books and become admirers of your work and have an affection for you.

. . . [I]t is the faithfulness of the friendship, of the homage of those men, never criticizing, that began when they were children. . . . and you will remain in the home of their hearts’ affection forever and ever. And Louis Stevenson and I decided that of all fame, that was the best, the very best.

Samuel Clemens was a practical man. He knew that commercial success as a writer required skill in craft, plus business savvy. He made sure in many ways that people knew who Mark Twain was and what they could expect from a Mark Twain story.

In short, he knew the secrets of personal branding. Creating a brand involves, he realized, not just earning it but also assuming it.

You don’t develop a brand without some active involvement in creating its form.

3 comments for “Mark Twain and Personal Branding

  1. June 1, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    Great ideas…thanks.

  2. James Nolan
    June 23, 2008 at 8:13 am

    Last week, I took a class at UW-Madison on screenwriting, and it was suggested to establish our “brand” as screenwriters.

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