Lessons on branding from Blackbeard the Pirate | MBA Learnings

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First-year student Rohan Rajiv is blogging once a week about important lessons he is learning at Kellogg. Read more of his posts here.

A brand is simply a network of associations that exist in the minds of customers. Seeing the famous Nike swoosh or the Coca Cola logo triggers associations in our mind.

Brand associations are incredibly powerful because they stick. Malaysian Airlines, for example, is likely to face the consequences of its two tragedies for a very long time. These discussions naturally lead us to other conversations around what companies do with these associations – rebranding, repositioning, etc. We’ll leave those topics for a later time and, instead, learn from one of the early exponents of the power of a brand: Blackbeard the Pirate.

Edward Teach or “Blackbeard” is one of the most famous pirates in history. And, after an apprenticeship with some famous pirates of the day, he went on to build an empire of sorts. While he wasn’t the most successful pirate in terms of loot, he definitely succeeded in leaving behind an unparalleled legacy. Here’s how:

1. THE NAME – BLACKBEARD. It is unknown where he got his famous nickname. Given his mastery of the art of building a brand, we could suspect that it might be the work of the man himself. He was a shrewd and calculating businessman who knew that intimidation mattered greatly as a pirate. The more intimidated his opposing ships were, the less men he would lose since they would give up without a fight.

2. DEVIL’S IMAGE. Blackbeard knew the importance of image in his line of work. Before battle, he would dress all in black, strap several pistols to his chest and put on a large black captain’s hat. Then, he would put slow burning fuses in his hair and beard. The fuses constantly sputtered and gave off smoke, which wreathed him in a perpetual greasy fog. He looked like a devil who had stepped right out of hell and onto a pirate ship and most of his victims simply surrendered their cargo rather than fight him.

Blackbeard-Flag3. THE FIRST PIRATE FLAGBlackbeard was a true innovator in using insignia. He realized that he would be able to intimidate ships best if they knew he was coming from afar. So, he created his flag – a skeleton spearing a heart while toasting a devil. Pirates later simplified it to the modern version which just depicts a skull and bones.

Blackbeard understood that he wanted one association when people thought of him – fear. And, he carefully crafted an image around fear that has lasted well past his time. His is a wonderful lesson in building powerful brands while also prompting the question – what is your personal brand? Is it what you would like it to be? What do you do to live up to the brand you aspire to be?

As you can tell with Blackbeard’s tale, these often become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Rohan Rajiv is a first-year student in Kellogg’s Full-Time Two-Year Program. Prior to Kellogg he worked at a-connect serving clients on consulting projects across 14 countries in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America. He blogs a learning every day, including his MBA Learnings series, on www.ALearningaDay.com.

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