Swim with the Sharks or Sleep with the Fishes: The Marketing Wisdom of The Godfather

Perhaps more than any other movie in the last thirty years, none has been assimilated into the lexicon of mainstream popular culture as much as The Godfather (1972) and its epic sequel – The Godfather: Part II (1974).

The revered place that The Godfather occupies in the American psyche is a testament not only to the box-office revenues (1) it has earned or the numerous awards (2) it has won; rather, what distinguishes The Godfather from other popular movies is the extent to which its dialogue is quoted chapter and verse. Its wit and wisdom have become, for lack of a better term, a guidepost in our daily lives: “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” became the de facto mantra for advertisers, late-night comedians, and wiseguy wannabes; “Leave the gun…take the cannoli” epitomized the moral ambiguities and necessities of everyday life; and Luca Brasi (Don Vito Corleone’s chief enforcer) is often invoked on MSNBC’s Hardball when host Chris Matthews takes issue with some heavy-handed tactics in the political arena.

Background and Theme of The Godfather.

The screenplays for each of The Godfather films were co-written by Francis Coppola, the film’s director, and Mario Puzo, the author of the best-selling novel. In their unique collaboration, they refashioned a story about gangsters and elevated it to the level of myth – a cinematic tour de force which has long been praised for its poignant and tragic portrait of the Corleone “crime” family and its insight into a brutally corrupt economic system that sows the seeds of the family’s inevitable downfall.

As Coppola himself has remarked, the parallel lives of Vito and Michael are a thinly disguised metaphor for America and American capitalism. Underlying this metaphor, however, is a contradiction, namely, that the ideals of opportunity and social mobility are undermined by the destructive realities of the capitalist system, i.e., the unbridled desire for profit and power. The family empire that Vito builds is one that Michael cannot preserve. It is fragile and impermanent — its loyalties based on the vagaries of business, not on the close-knit bonds of family and community. Michael’s yearning for acceptance and legitimacy, although sympathetically portrayed, remains largely unattainable.

Applying the Marketing Wisdom of The Godfather.

Although many articles have already made the obvious link between the wisdom of The Godfather and its applications to the wider business world, no one, to my knowledge, has specifically applied The Godfather’s system of beliefs and code of conduct to the world of marketing, branding, and competitive positioning.

There are many lessons to be learned: The marketplace in which companies go head to head is no less contentious, fierce, or profit-driven. The Barzinis, Tattaglias, and Sollozzos of the so-called legitimate business world are trying to expand their territory (read market share and mindshare); and the Hyman Roths and Johnny Olas, once your business allies, are now formidable competitors threatening to weaken your tenuous market position. They’re all playing to win, and want nothing more than to knock you off the shelf, as it were.

Instead of a battle of bullets, it’s a war of words and a jockeying of positions. It’s a world in which perception is power. Since sitting on the sidelines is not a viable option, you’ll either prevail (e.g., enjoy champagne cocktails in the mountains) or fail (e.g., find Khartoum’s head in your bed). There’s an old Sicil-icon Valley expression: you can either swim with the sharks or sleep with the fishes, but you can’t do both.

The distilled wisdom of The Godfather is a page taken right out of the marketer’s playbook. Successful marketing campaigns rely on persuasive attempts to achieve market dominance, cultivate customer loyalty, and convince prospects and customers to take immediate action. To be successful, you must articulate a clear vision, embrace a set of core values, and redefine the competition to your best advantage (without the accompanying murder and mayhem, of course). To remain successful, you must leverage your credibility, influence, and market intelligence in ways that make your competitors shudder in their shiny black shoes. Well, at least that’s the general idea.

First off, let’s make some key distinctions between the world of The Godfather and the commercial marketplace as we know it today. First, enemies will henceforth be referred to as competitors. Competition in your business world is with other companies and their products, not with individuals (“It’s business, not personal”). Secondly, no illegal or immoral tactics are glorified or condoned in this paper (“Blood is a big expense”). Finally, I apologize in advance for any pearls of marketing wisdom from The Godfather that may have escaped my attention (“Don’t overestimate the power of forgiveness”).

The Top 10 Rules of The Godfather.

This paper focuses on the top ten rules that embody the wisdom of The Godfather — rules that all competitive marketers and branding strategists should heed and follow. Each rule provides insight and direction designed to help you align your message, strengthen your position, and expand your brand. The rules are gleaned from actual quotes found in each Godfather movie, including The Godfather: Part III (1990) which, although not as critically acclaimed as the first two, deftly plays out the saga of Michael’s dashed dreams, operatic self-destruction, and ignominious defeat. In some cases, the same or similar quote appears in more than one film – giving it added thematic importance.

“Our ships must all sail in the same direction.”- Don Lucchesi to Michael (III)

Rule #1: Inspire Loyalty

Whoever first said “lead, follow, or get out of the way” must have been Sicilian. Maybe it originated with Cristóbal Colón who realized he didn’t have a chance of making it to the new world without a vision (finding a new trade route to India) backed by ample financing and a loyal crew. One cannot underestimate the importance of having a bold vision that moves and inspires others: it defines the very purpose of your organization, is a reflection of your culture and belief system, and serves as a barometer of the values shared by your key stakeholders. More importantly, a strong vision stands alone – independent of external factors such as market share, profit, or competitive climate. Since each of your stakeholders (e.g., customers, employees, prospects, management, investors, etc.) has a slightly different perspective, align your message appropriately in order to unite them under a single banner and a common mission. Engage their sensibility. Stretch their imagination. Invite them along for the ride of a lifetime. Finally, inspire their loyalty by focusing their hopes and aspirations on the “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG) that guides them to the same distant horizon.

“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” – Clemenza to Rocco, after killing Paulie (I)

Rule #2: Make It Personal

The old adage still applies: Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Your customer is the center of the universe, not your product. Don’t pay lip service…provide customer service. Sweeten the deal. Use a carrot rather than a stick. Go high touch, not high tech. Put a human face on your organization. Make your messages intimate and conversational, and use the magic word “YOU” with reckless abandon. Keep your promises and commitments so that it’s an advantage to become and remain your customer. One wonders whether PeopleSoft employees and customers will get enough cannoli to keep them satisfied in their extended Oracle family. Making it personal means conveying your passion and contagious enthusiasm, and letting your humanity shine through. After all, your goal is to build relationships, not sell widgets.

“Let us draw water from the well.” – Barzini to the other Dons, referring to Don Vito (I) and “Let me wet my beak a little” – Don Fanucci to young Vito (II)

Rule #3: Emphasize Solutions

Let’s face it, if you’re in business, you’re here to solve your customers’ problems. Become an indispensable resource and share the bounty. Communicate the benefits of doing business with your company, and find ways of contributing to their success. Tell your customers why they need your service now, and how you’re best equipped to produce measurable and positive results. Do everything in your power to make their job easier and give them peace of mind. Craft an overarching brand promise that your employees, customers, partners, and distributors can take to the bank. Fulfilling that promise means achieving consistency and delivering satisfaction. Make a real difference in the lives of your stakeholders and you’ll capture not only their business, but their loyalty.

“I want you to see what he’s got under his fingernails.” — Don Vito to Luca Brasi, referring to Sollozzo (I)

Rule #4: Play To Win

Who are your main competitors and what are their core strengths and weaknesses? What position do they own and occupy? How do you stack up? Is your main message cutting through the clutter? If you’re not sure, perhaps a little digging for market intelligence is in order. Since you’re competing for mindshare, it means uncovering your competitors’ vulnerabilities and exploiting them. It also means keeping score of your messages and making each one count. Beat your competitors at their own game or make them play by your rules. Competitive positioning is more than just putting a stake in the ground and claiming it in the name of Spain. What claims are your competitors making? Perhaps they’re on shakier ground than you think. Although you don’t need a Luca Brasi to do your bidding, it helps to have a team of reliable sharpshooters, or an automated strategic market intelligence solution, to monitor the impact and reach of your messages and the extent to which your competitors are making inroads where you are not. Get a grip on your main message, keep your eye on the ball, and swing for the fences. This is one of the few opportunities you have to focus on why you’re in business and what makes you a player in the business you’re in.

“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”- Michael to Pentangeli (II)

Rule #5: Know Your Competitors

How well do you really know your competitors? What makes them tick? Can you anticipate their next move? To do so, you need to understand their motivations, needs, and intentions. Study your competitors. Learn and borrow from them. Redefine them to your best advantage. To compensate for your own weaknesses, build alliances and pursue friendly “co-opetiton” as part and parcel of a practical marketing strategy. You can find common ground with anyone, even the Fanuccis in your market space. There’s a strange symbiotic relationship that exists between adversaries (e.g., cops and criminals, political rivals, hosts and parasites, to name a few). In the world of business, positioning is relative and in a constant state of flux: Predators devour weaker prey (SBC/AT&T); some fish band together (Chevron/Texaco); some eat their own kind (Enron); and others migrate to warmer, more protective waters (MCI). The ones that adapt to their environment survive – and that means being able to strengthen one’s competitive position even in the face of overwhelming upheaval and opposition.

“He’s thinking of going to the mattresses.” — Clemenza to Paulie and Rocco, referring to Sonny’s plan for an all-out war requiring his “button men” to sleep in makeshift warehouses and safe houses (I)

Rule #6: Seize the Moment

Your competitor is winning the battle of perceptions. You’re losing mindshare. What do you do? Buy more advertising time? Sponsor a big event? Hold a news conference? Hire a celebrity spokesperson? What if your budget is anemic…then what? Regardless of the scale of your marketing, the important thing is to take a stand, and then take action. Sonny Corleone was not known for his painstaking market research. This is not to suggest you should be rash and impulsive; however, at a certain point, you have to rely on your gut instincts as a marketer and go for it! After all, timing is everything. That’s how campaigns are won and lost. Raise the stakes by bringing urgency to your most important messages. Give your customers a deadline. Force them to make a decision. Hit them from all angles. Sometimes it takes more than numbers to arrive at a difficult decision – it takes nerve. So when the opportunity arises, be prepared to pull out the stops and launch an intense and targeted blitz. Anyway, you don’t want to be too predictable. Use the element of surprise to throw your competitors off guard. Carpe momentum!

“Michael, we’re bigger than U.S. Steel.” – Hyman Roth (II)

Rule #7: Think Big

If you’re going to compete with the “big boys,” you might as well put yourself in their class and category. Perception rules the roost – so start by changing the way you perceive yourself. Branding has a lot to do with confidence. If you act big, bold, and brilliant, chances are the world will see you that way, too. When it comes to marketing, every campaign you launch should embrace one big idea. Focus on the big picture, not the minutiae. Failure to do so will result in your message being diluted, drowned out, and quickly forgotten. Find a major theme to anchor and amplify your message. Put an appropriate frame around it to give it perspective and gravitas. Create affinity with your customers by capturing their hearts, touching a nerve, and becoming, well, unforgettable. Give the world a direct and definitive way to experience your brand on a grand scale. Where would we be without movers and shakers like Edison, Carnegie, Ford, Walton, and Gates who not only had great ideas that changed society, but knew how to market them effectively?

“I believe in America. America has made my fortune.” — Bonasera to Don Vito (I)

Rule #8: Be Creative and Innovative

This opening line of The Godfather says it all: Pursue your dreams, make money, and become an entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word. This means shaking off old habits, exploiting any and all marketing opportunities, and occasionally taking the road less traveled. Being a “me too” brand or communicating a cookie-cutter message will not enhance your value or contribute to your lasting success. If we know anything about the American dream, it’s limitless…and it smiles on the marketer with a better, faster, and cheaper mousetrap. Look at the phenomenal growth and success of the iPod. Within a few short years, Apple applied its vision and resources, and virtually cornered the market for digital audio players that use hard drives. Innovation is either part of your corporate culture, or it’s not. Find a new solution to an old problem. Reinvent your old bag of tricks. Challenge yourself. Break from convention, but know the rules you’re breaking. Make your message fun and fresh. Surprise and delight an unsuspecting world. Of course, that means going the extra mile – but, as they say, it’s never crowded.

“This I cannot do.” — Don Vito to Bonasera (I) and Michael to Don Altobello (III)

Rule #9: Know Yourself

With all due respect to Socrates, who popularized the famous inscription (3) at the Apollo Temple in Delphi (“gnothi se auton”) and Shakespeare, who paraphrased it in Hamlet, Act I, Scene III (“to thine own self be true”), the maxim lives on in The Godfather. The Corleone patriarchs relied on the wisdom that comes with self-knowledge. Their values, both for good and ill, formed the unshakable foundation of their vision. Determine which ones are revered and shared within your organization. Remember, they’re not core values if you drop them because they end up costing you too much or put you at a competitive disadvantage. Values are universal and timeless. They stand the test of time and create a strong affinity with those who believe in your organization. Values, and the standards they uphold, provide insight into your organization’s brand character. The fundamental principles you cherish are the bedrock of your brand. They guide your organization’s behavior, and put the world on notice that there is some backbone behind your message. When all else slips and stumbles (e.g., the economy, your market share, your profits, etc.), you’ll always have your values to fall back on.

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” – Don Vito to Johnny Fontane, referring to Jack Woltz (I) and Michael to Fredo, referring to Moe Green (I)

Rule #10: Make It Compelling

What makes a brand memorable and a message compelling? Is it the free offer? The iron-clad guarantee? The gushing testimonials? The edgy creative and clever copy? It’s all those things…and more. A compelling message has a story behind it, a story with dramatic appeal. It’s show time! It’s time to make your customers go a-ha! It’s time to move and motivate them. It’s time to deliver the flawless elevator pitch, get the “yes,” and go for the close. However, you must first build trust by establishing a consistent track record. Second, communicate with your stakeholders often and listen for the gold (e.g., understand their needs, fears, frustrations, aspirations, etc.). Third, make them an offer they would be ill-advised to dismiss or ignore. This is the essence of marketing, the raison d’etre of your message, and the whole purpose of your campaign. If you follow the first nine rules, the final rule should be a “piece of cannoli.” After the dust has settled, if your customers still haven’t opened their hearts and wallets, revisit Rule #6 and think about going to the mattresses again!


The philosophy of The Godfather tells you everything you need to know about communicating a compelling message, owning and occupying a strong market position, and building and packaging a memorable brand. Whether your game is business or politics, survival is everything – protecting your turf, avoiding pitfalls, and capitalizing on opportunities, or, in other words, staying on top while improving the bottom line.

Your message is in a constant struggle to be heard and understood in a vast sea of competing messages. In the course of your marketing campaign, take time to review, test, and measure the reach and impact of your message, brand awareness, and competitive position. In a world where perceptions dominate, messages can be easily countered and co-opted, brands can weaken and wane from benign neglect, and competitive positions are subject to the old switcheroo. But here’s the good news: When you find yourself off-message, get back on track; if your brand needs a lift, give it a makeover; and if your position is assaulted, put your best button men (read guerrilla marketers) on the street. In sum, if “there’s a stone in your shoe, remove it.”

I suspect that in another thirty years, the lessons of The Godfather will be no less instructive. As long as we continue to thrive in a global marketplace where new ideas, services, and technologies comprise the intellectual currency of the realm, there will always be a need for tough, clever, and solution-oriented marketing.

To those marketers, message mavens, branding strategists, and competitive intelligence professionals who are inspired by the wisdom of The Godfather, Michael Corleone’s traditional Italian toast on the shore of Lake Tahoe is definitely in order: “Cent’Anni!”


(1) The Godfather was the top-grossing film of 1972 and has generated about $135 million in total domestic (U.S. and Canada) box-office revenues, or $502.4 million converted into today’s dollars; The Godfather: Part II ($57.3 million or $195.2 million in 2005 dollars); and The Godfather: Part III ($66.7 million or $101.7 million in 2005 dollars).

(2) The Godfather received ten Academy Award nominations and won three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Coppola and Puzo). The film earned five Golden Globe Awards, and Coppola won the coveted Directors Guild of America Award for best direction. It also received five New York Film Critics Circle nominations, with the win going to Robert Duvall for Best Supporting Actor. The Godfather: Part II received eleven Academy Award nominations and won six Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Robert DeNiro), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction (Dean Tavoularis and Angelo Graham; plus George Nelson for Set Decoration), and Best Original Score (Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola). It was also nominated for six Golden Globe Awards and two New York Film Critics Circle Awards, but did not win any. Al Pacino, however, won a British Academy award for Best Actor, and Coppola picked up another Directors Guild of America Award. The Godfather: Part III received seven Academy Award nominations but failed to win any Oscars. It also received seven Golden Globe Award nominations, with the only win going to Coppola for Best Director.

(3) Not surprisingly, the other maxim inscribed at the Apollo Temple in Delphi is “nothing in excess.”

© 2005 Eric Stephen Swartz. All rights reserved.

The Information Marketing Primer For Helping and Healing Solo-Professionals – Part 4 – Free Report

In previous articles in this series, I talked about the importance of creating another stream of income in addition to your direct service hours. Information marketing is a natural fit for you as a solo-professional because of your extensive knowledge and expertise. It can prove to be a great source of additional income or replacement income should you cut back on direct service hours. I also discussed the importance of choosing your target market and creating an online presence.

In this article of the series, I will have you diving into the world of information marketing by creating your very first information product – the Free or Special Report. You may be asking yourself “If I’m supposed to be creating a revenue stream through selling my information to my targeted audience, why am I starting with a free product?”

There’s a good reason for it that I alluded to in previous articles…you have to build up your credibility and visibility and you have to build up your potential list of customers for your products. Having a blog is one way to create this credibility and visibility. Having a free report to offer from your static one-page or multiple page website is a critical way to increase your credibility and visibility and to drive people to your business. Making a sale directly to a “cold audience” isn’t easy, but it becomes much easier to make a sale if you are selling to people who are growing to know, like and trust you.

The Free or Special Report

There are two formats in which you can create your free or special report. One is in a written format and the other is in audio format. You are probably stronger in one or the other – writing or speaking – so start with the one that is best for you. But plan on having most of your information in more than one format because your customers most likely have their preferences for how they want to consume your information. I’ll focus on the written format in this installment and on the audio format in the next installment.

The first thing to do whether you are doing an audio or written free report is to decide the subject of this report. This is based on the target market you have chosen and what their most pressing needs are.

Let’s go back to an example in a previous installment of the nurse practitioner who specializes in working with children with ADHD. From your direct service work you know that two main concerns for parents are their child’s behavior problems and also their child’s low self-esteem. Your free report could focus on one or the other (not both) – managing behavior or helping raise their child’s self-esteem.

Or in the example of the acupuncturist who has a strong interest in helping people avoid diseases that are related to poor diet and lifestyle choices, your free report could focus on the factors that contribute to poor health or on the factors that contribute to good health.

The most important thing to remember in this report is that you are giving the “Why” and the “What”, but not the “How”…that is what they will have to pay for through your information products or your services.

You want to make sure that your free report is substantive but not so lengthy that it overwhelms your readers. A good minimum of pages is 10; maximum number is about 30 pages.

Make sure you give the free or special report a provocative or noteworthy title such as “10 Biggest Mistakes Parents of Children with ADHD Make…and How to Avoid Them” or “Seven Absolutely Essential Things You Have to Do to Not Die from Diseases Caused by Poor Lifestyle Choices”. These kinds of titles get people’s attention!

Here’s a simple format for the report:

State the problem or the source of pain for your targeted reader. (“As a parent, you find yourself frustrated and disheartened as every night turns into a battleground with your ADHD child…” or “Obesity is an epidemic in this country that is completely avoidable…”)

Add some real-life examples of this problem or pain – make it more real in their minds.

Explain why this is happening or what the causes are or what is the theory behind this problem.

Explain why what your readers have been doing to date hasn’t been working

Provide your solution without going into the “How” (“We know from several long-term studies that a behavioral program, coupled with family therapy can bring…” or “We know that eliminating processed foods, cutting out sugar, eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables…”)

Then give them the next step. For right now, as you do not yet have your information product developed, the next best step would be getting them to your email newsletter so that you can keep in touch with and eventually introduce your products to them. Once you do have a product, you will introduce it to your readers at the end of your free report. This change can be easily made when you are ready.

We will discuss the Ezine or email newsletter in Part Six of this series. Once you have your free or special report completed and your email newsletter in place, it’s time to start rolling out your information products to your audience. I’ll start presenting on how to develop these products in Part Seven.

A View of Your Business Marketing Future

Let’s imagine…

….how your new website will serve you…

… after it has become a highly optimized, direct response website.

Because of your targeted search engine optimization, a potential customer sees your site within the top 10 results on Google, Yahoo or Bing. Clicking on the link, they are taken to your highly informative and interactive website. They discover your new blog with its weekly updates provides just the type of information they need to receive on a recurring basis. So, they sign up for your RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed.

Next, they see the offer of a report, tip sheet or ecourse that provides exactly the guidance they need. To receive this product, they complete your response form. This form gathers their name, the entity they work for, a phone number and an email address. Upon completion of the form, they automatically receive the report through your auto-responder. The message tells them to be watching for their first copy of your newsletter, and lets them know they will receive notice when new information is uploaded to your website. Part of this new information will be the notice of the weekly blog post. Since all of this is automated, simply by the potential client completing the form, all of the rest occurs without intervention by your staff.

One more step takes place automatically. A designated person on your sales staff is automatically notified that a new potential client has registered. A prepared email from that staff person is automatically sent to the new registrant thanking them for requesting the report and providing personal contact information. Within 24 hours, one of your sales persons places a follow-up phone call. That call is the first time human intervention takes place. Everything up to that point is automated.

Key Components

The cornerstones of today’s internet marketing efforts include:

  • A fully search engine optimized, direct response website.
  • An active blog.
  • An email campaign.
  • Article and video marketing.
  • A well-rounded social media marketing campaign. Coupled together, these interwoven pieces will exponentially increase your market share.

Measurable Results

Internet Marketing is the only type of marketing able to provide detailed tracking information. Tracking is also available within your email marketing system. With a full service email marketing system you know how many of your messages reached their destination, and if there are any links within the body of your message, you can track how many clicks that link received. Your system will also track how many email addresses were undeliverable and if anyone made any complaints against your email marketing program.

Article and video marketing will increase your page rank in search engine results while also increasing your Know-Like-Trust (KLT) factor. Social media marketing exponentially increases your KLT factor while simultaneously providing a platform for viral marketing that reaches into markets you would probably have no other way of reaching.