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Blackbeard’s Guide to Building a Better Brand

Put simply, the value of a strong and distinctive brand is that it just makes everything a heck of a lot easier. A strong, memorable, and relevant brand positioning gives companies permission to demand higher prices, it lubricates distribution channels, it empowers brand evangelists and influencers, and it can establish barriers to competition.

In other words, it lets you get away with things that other brands simply can’t, and it lets you do those things with less risk and more confidence of a positive ROI. The takeaway of all this is that investing in the development and communication of your brand pays dividends.

The Power of a Brand

There are countless everyday examples of powerful brands — Apple, Nike, Lego, and Ferrari to name a few. But modern corporations weren’t the first to understand the weight and influence of proper branding. For an alternative illustration, consider an interesting historical case in point: the 18th century pirate, Edward Teach — better known both now and then as Blackbeard.

Blackbeard’s genius moment was realizing that piracy was a lot less messy when you simply scared people into giving up their valuables (rather than, you know, killing them and taking their stuff). Once he realized this, he leveraged the powerful emotion of fear to create a brand that moved his criminal enterprise forward with superior efficiency and effectiveness.

To be clear, I don’t condone Blackbeard’s actions. Murder, thievery, scare tactics — those are all terrible, appalling things that have no place in a civilized society. That being said, there’s no getting around it — Blackbeard was a master of brand building. Great branding, but with terrible motives.

A Bit of Background on Blackbeard and His Brand

Blackbeard is one of the most famous pirates in history. While Edward Teach may not have been the most successful pirate in terms of loot, he definitely succeeded in leaving behind an unparalleled legacy. He was a shrewd and calculating businessman who knew that intimidation mattered greatly as a pirate. The more intimidated his prey was, the less men he would lose, since they would simply give up without a fight.

In fact, in Blackbeard’s heyday, he could often capture a ship without firing a single shot. It went a little something like this:

  • Step 1: Blackbeard raised his flag.
  • Step 2: His prey raised the white flag.
  • Step 3: Conflict resolved.
  • Step 4: Profit

While we won’t be using these steps today to strike fear into the hearts of sailors and landlubbers alike, there are many things that we as marketers still use from Blackbeard’s example of brand building. Teach’s brand strategy consisted of three primary elements.

1. Create a Signature Look

Blackbeard knew the importance of image in his line of work. Before battle, he would dress all in black, strap several flintlock pistols and knives to his chest, and put on a large black captain’s hat. After that, he’d put slow burning fuses in his hair and beard. The fuses constantly sputtered and gave off smoke, which wreathed him in a mysterious fog.

Did this help elevate his marksmanship? Probably not. What it did do was make him look like a devil who had stepped right out of Hell itself and onto a pirate ship. Most of his victims simply surrendered their cargo rather than fight a man like that.

At the time, he was described as “such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury from Hell to look more frightful.” If that’s not powerful branding, I don’t know what is.

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2. Develop an Iconic Logo

Blackbeard was a true innovator in using an iconic logo. He is attributed as being the first to realize that he would be able to intimidate ships best if they knew he was coming from afar.

So, what does he do? He creates his own logo and throws it on a flag — a skeleton spearing a heart while toasting the Devil. Other pirates later simplified the insignia to the Jolly Roger, which just depicts a skull and crossbones. That’s a perfect early example that shows how even the most effective brands are subject to design changes and refinements.

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3. Deliver a Powerful Message

Blackbeard was, by all accounts, a violent and pitiless man — but he wasn’t a bloodthirsty killer. Historians note that he was very strategic in his brutality, selectively torturing a captive here and there, making sure other passengers observed and would widely communicate the horrors they witnessed once they returned to shore. It was a despicable message, but one that spread like wildfire.

A chilling example of this was when Blackbeard once shot his second-in-command, Israel Hands, in the knee under the table during a game of cards. The attack came totally unprovoked and rendered the man lame for life. When Blackbeard was asked the meaning of this, he only answered that if he did not, now and then, kill one of them, they would forget who he was. That’s certainly one way to reinforce a message.

Pirate Branding in Action

The ultimate example of Edward Teach’s powerful brand influence took place in May of 1718 in Charleston, South Carolina. Blackbeard and his crew were able to blockade the harbor and hold the city hostage for 30 days without firing a shot. Instead, they relied on the fear created by his deftly engineered reputation as a murderous devil. After 30 days, Blackbeard released a handful of hostages they’d gathered up after the city provided the ransom they had demanded. It’s a dark example of powerful branding, but an example nonetheless.

A little historical aside. You might be asking yourself, what exactly was the ransom Blackbeard demanded in return for the release of his hostages? Gold? Jewels? Food and supplies? Weirdly enough, it was none of the above. Actually, the ransom consisted of vials of calomel (mercury chloride), the common treatment for syphilis at the time. The ineffective and often deadly remedy spawned a popular expression at the time — “One night with Venus gets you a lifetime with Mercury.”

Blackbeard intuitively understood the value of a brand, and that he wanted people to associate one and only one thing when they thought of him — fear. He carefully and strategically crafted an image for himself that lasted well past his lifetime.

So, what’s the insight for brand marketers? It’s not to develop a terrifying persona and go out pirating the waters around Charleston. Instead, it’s this: Find a powerful emotional hook to associate with your brand, create a narrative that clearly supports that positioning, and deliver it with maximum impact. It worked for Blackbeard in the most horrible of ways, but we hope you’re able to use these lessons in branding for good, wholesome marketing.

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