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What The Godfather teaches you about marketing

The epic novel and seminal movies have taught me more about life than any of the books I read in school (except maybe Machiavelli’s The Prince). The 448 pages of the actual novel have many more hidden gems than the movies, even though the films are 2:58, 3:22, and 2:50 respectively and are packed with valuable insights.

The Godfather movie still Marlon BrandoHere are my top five Godfather quotes and passages related to marketing. So difficult to only choose five, left out were: “Behind every fortune was a great crime” (probably could have related that to the time it takes to build a brand); “He made him an offer he couldn’t refuse” (could have worked this one into making the ask); and “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” (would have used this one to teach the next generation of marketing professionals).

“Never tell anyone outside the family what you’re thinking again.” Vito Corleone, The Godfather

“What’s a matter with you?” my nana would say, but I didn’t realize she was paraphrasing the Don. For context, Don Corleone is lecturing his son after a meeting with another entrepreneur looking for protection for his expanding heroin racket. Sonny, the Don’s eldest, says aloud that there’s a lot of money in that white powder. The Don knew back then what heroin and other opioids would reap on society. The lesson here for any organization is never to let your enemies (in our case, competitors) know what you’re thinking. Equally important, your clients need to know that the important information they share never leaves your four walls. This extends to employees whose loose lips can sink ships.

“Many young men started down a false path to their true destiny. Time and fortune usually set them aright.” Mario Puzo, The Godfather

This lesson – prevalent in the Bible, the Greek tragedies and Shakespeare, from which all great works are based – is also true in marketing. If I could tell you which foolproof marketing strategy would absolutely work, I would not be writing this blog, because I would be rich beyond my wildest dreams. No one can predict which marketing tactic will work, but we can try, fail, retry, modify, fix, and persevere – all while applying what we have learned. That digital campaign you start that doesn’t initially reap the rewards does not mean current and present marketing initiatives will fail. It takes the right audience, messaging, frequency and consistency over time. Be like Mike – Michael Corleone – not Fredo!

“Never hate your enemies. It clouds your judgement.” Michael Corleone, The Godfather III

This quintessential line is from the man who didn’t want to wipe out everyone, just his enemies. To understand our enemies, I like to do an exercise with clients in which I ask them: 

1) Tell me what you say about yourself; 

2) Tell me what you say about your competitor; 

3) Tell me what your competitor says about itself; 

4) Tell me what your competitor says about you. 

Note: you need to do this for all your competitors. Understand yourself first, and then what others are saying about you. This enables you to craft your message, deflecting your negatives and accentuating your positives.

“Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family ever again.” Michael Corleone, The Godfather

Being passed over for his little brother, clearly, was not what Fredo wanted. But you never question your Don, even if it is your little brother, and absolutely never in public. This, of course, is from the infamous “I’m Moe Greene” scene. Never, never, never take sides against the family. When we’re on the same team, we all need to be rowing in the same direction. As a client, if you receive conflicting information from your account executive that differs from the agency owner, you will question what’s going on internally. And if you’re that AE, you never question the agency owner, unless for matters of honor and good sense (borrowed from Churchill).

 “They call it business. OK. But it’s personal as hell. You know where I learned that from? The Don.” Mario Puzo, The Godfather

Of course, one of the most quoted lines is: “It’s business, not personal.” But when you dig deeper, you understand that it’s always personal. And in marketing, the most powerful person is you. You, and especially your ads, do not need to tell your prospective customers how smart you are and what you’ve done. Second, you need to figure out how you can alleviate your client’s primary concern. Third, you should always include “you” in your advertisements. 

While “I did not know until today that it was Barzini all along,” remember that when it comes to difficult things, “Mr. Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately.” Whenever faced with a difficult news story – or really any bad news you have to deliver in life – it’s always best to deliver it in person, not by text, email or phone. 

John Houle is the president of JH Communications and can be reached at 401.831.6123 or at john@jhcom.net.

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