The Marketing Genius Of Al Capone
Gangsters and kingpins are a lot like avante-guard visual artists. You hate them while they are alive, but generations later their grainy mugshots evoke a nostalgic yearning for the dimly understood times of past.
But not so with the legendary Al Capone. He was loved in his time (right up until the Valentine's Day Massacre) and his public appearances were met with cheers.
Perhaps most confident-looking mugshot in history. And he wasn't wrong. Check the bottom right of the page to see his crime sentences.
Capone built his chops as a teenager in small-time street gangs of New York. He was eventually noticed by Johnny "The Fox" Torrio - a mob boss who began employing him for small errands. When things got dangerous for Torrio in New York, and he left for Chicago, the two stayed in touch.
Capone took after his mentor and at twenty, had worn out his welcome with the rivaling White Hand Gang. After a brief stint in Baltimore, he was invited to Chicago by Torrio for a career as a bouncer. His mentor Torrio was close to the top of a Chicago crime ring, and the only thing in his way was the boss himself, Jim Colosimo. Colosimo was assassinated (likely by Capone) and Capone's mentor took his place.
With Johnny Torrio now at the top and presiding over the burgeoning new bootlegging industry, Capone was the right-hand man to the biggest gangster in America. At this point, Capone had already been influenced by successful mobster Paul Kelly. Kelly had advised him to start dressing well, stop swearing, and put on a front as a legitimate businessman. His style earned him the nickname "Snorky," a colloquialism for sharp-dresser.
Capone became known as a boxing promoter and continued to work closely with Torrio. By the time Torrio decided to pass the business on after a particularly nasty assassination attempt, Capone was a natural choice to take the reigns. Torrio quit the business entirely and moved to Italy where fewer people wanted him dead (something that would come to change). At twenty-six, Capone was the head of a mob empire banking nearly a billion current-day dollars a year.
He moved his headquarters to the plush Metropole Hotel and lived a lavish public life funded entirely by untraceable cash. The media's obsession with him netted him popularity with the public which was only bolstered by his anti-prohibition association. He became known as a rebel who worked for the people.
But when Capone's top hit-man lead a clever operation in which they assassinated seven members of a rival gang in cold blood while disguised as police, the media turned on him and he was dubbed an enemy to the public.
With his popularity waning, Capone was eventually charged with tax evasion, and his reign came to an end at the age of thirty-three. But what he left behind was an indelible image.
His business ran on bribery, intimidation, violence, and vices. But with a plush life and a gregarious demeanor, he was celebrated by the vacuous media. Whether this was an intentional strategy or just his natural personality, who knows? But it worked. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman says, "What you see is all there is."
By the time the massacre had happened, presiding over the murder of seven other criminals was probably one of the nicest things Capone had ever done. Hundreds of innocent people had already been killed in the day to day operation of his mob, but the highly public nature of the Valentine's Day Massacre is what turned against him.
The media's loyalty to a story can be easily misunderstood to be loyalty to an individual. While the latter may exist, journalists subsist entirely off of getting attention. This principle is why Capone's celebration as a kingpin shouldn't have been any more shocking than the press' abrupt turnaround when his violence became an even better story.
What don't you like about your company's branding? How could you play that up or turn it around? Is your company's image so boring that it seems to have a permanent residence in conversational absentia? Maybe a new image isn't as far as it sounds. Is your brand a target for critics? Maybe you should think outside the box and own it.
If you are a marketing agency, consider talking less about how you are "connecting the world" and more about what you're really good at. People can tell when you're trying to hide your brand behind a wall of buzzwords and lofty, incongruous mission statements. Take a leaf from a charismatic gangster and own some of your eccentricities. Just don't get the book thrown at you.