Ask the average American to name an inventor, and inevitably most will cite Thomas Edison. But did you know he had extraordinary skills as a marketer and brand manager? I recently watched the PBS film on Thomas Edison and was surprised by his brilliant marketing mind. Here are a few examples:
First, Edison branded everything with his name, his face, and his signature. He understood that he was himself the essence of the brand. And he promoted the name on every product and in every advertisement. He was one of the early adopters of the trademark concept, still nascent at the time. He was so successful at promoting his brand, that it became quite valuable. As a result, he spent time warding off unauthorized usage of his brand. When his son, Tom, sold his last name to a homeopathic medicine company, Thomas Edison senior paid his son to change his name to “Burton Willard”! How’s that for protecting your brand integrity?
A second example of his marketing prowess also caught my attention. A little context is required so bear with me. Edison invented the electric light, and in order for cities to electrify homes and streets, they needed power stations and power distribution. Edison was a proponent of Direct Current (DC) power that you see in a battery. One wire or terminal has 1.5 or 5 or 12 volts, and the other wire has 0v, and the electricity flows from the former to the latter. It is simple, and needs very little math to understand. The problem is that you cannot send it very far over wires. After a mile or two, the voltage drops to near zero. The power distribution solution is to use Alternating Current (AC) instead, such as the 110v AC we all have in our homes today. It can travel many miles, and the higher the voltage, the further you can send it with minimal loss in power. Edison didn’t invent AC, he preferred his DC, and instead of out-inventing his AC competitors (Westinghouse and Thomson-Houston) he attempted to out-market them!
As the sales for new power stations with cities were increasingly won by his competitors, because their solution was clearly superior, Edison determined that he needed to show the public just how dangerous AC was. He started a campaign to discredit his competitors. He wrote in a pamphlet “It is a matter of fact that any system employing high voltage jeopardizes life.” There were accounts suggesting that he electrocuted dogs and horses with AC to prove his point. But then he went one step further.
Edison had been a life-long opponent of capital punishment. But such was his zeal to defeat his competitors that he offered his expertise to New York State to help them shift from hanging to electrocution (with Westinghouse AC of course) because it would be more “humane”. You have to admire his understanding of brand attributes and his attempt to associate AC with death.
In the end, the campaign had no effect on his competitor’s success, and eventually Edison General Electric merged with Thomson-Houston and became General Electric. Welcome to marketing 130 years ago. Today’s marketers take note: Thomas Edison, brilliant inventor, brand manager and some-time campaign manager, was light-years ahead of his time.