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5 Marketing Lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 20, 2014

martin luther king jr

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It’s a national holiday, although it wasn’t always recognized as such. When I lived in Mississippi, Robert E. Lee’s birthday, a state holiday, was the preference for the third Monday in January.

Not everybody liked Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was alive and there are plenty of people who don’t like him today, over forty years after he was shot to death in Memphis. But the work he did continues to have impact on people, which is why I want to talk about him in today’s marketing lessons post.

5 Marketing Lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr.

1. Ignore the Naysayers – Think you’ve got haters? Look at the photo above — it’s Martin Luther King, Jr. removing a burnt cross from his front lawn.

No matter what you do, somebody is going to have a problem with it. Sometimes a lot of people are going to have problems with it. Are you going to let the opinions of others keep you from doing something you believe in? Sadly, most people do…

Nobody is ever remembered for going with the status quo. By following that route, at best, you’ll end up with a gold watch when you retire.

If you don’t have naysayers, you’re either not being bold enough or not reaching enough people with your message.

2. Hold the Vision – It’s a bitch when you get hate mail (or the equivalent of it), but it’s even worse when you’re being ignored, not even reaching enough people to get hate mail.

Everybody with a message has had each of the above problems at times. Everybody.

How do you work through these things? Hold the vision.

I’ve often heard this referred to as having a “why.” Why do you want people to read (or otherwise consume) your message? Why do you want to build the business you’re building? Why do you want to do what you’re doing?

When your “why” is big enough, everything else happens. It might not always be easy, but it happens.

3. Share the Vision – Tell people what you want, then allow them to join you.

When you listen to Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, he doesn’t say things like, “If it’s convenient, and it’s not raining, this might be something to consider…” Instead, he shares a bold vision for things, lets you know what he sees as possible, and allows you to join him.

Are you not helping anybody by trying to please everybody? Are you asking too many people for feedback before taking action?

Too many opinions complicate decisions and nothing gets done. Share your vision, then let people decide whether  or not to join you.

4. Practice and Prepare (But Be Flexible) – King’s most well-known speech was the “I Have a Dream” speech given at the March on Washington in 1963. But he had been preaching about dreams since 1960 and possibly before. Earlier tapes with similar content exist as well as various drafts of the speech. Gordy Records released a similar speech by him, given a few months earlier, on an album called “The Great March to Freedom.”

The speech given at the March on Washington wasn’t even called “I Have a Dream.” It was called “Normalcy, Never Again.”

So what happened?

Toward the end of his speech at the March on Washington, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted to King from the crowd, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” At that point, he stopped delivering his prepared speech and started “preaching” his previously used content, punctuating his points with “I have a dream.”

Great things happen when you’re flexible.

And when you’re not? It’s easy for others to make you look like a recording…

5. Let Others Do the Work – There is something in business known as “critical mass.” Most people think it simply means getting big. It doesn’t.

Critical mass is when you reach a point where other people are doing your work for you, in this case marketing. For example, you have a product that is so hot, people are talking about it enough to where any advertising you do is icing on the cake.

Or when people are complaining about you online and you so many people that love you, they’ll step in to defend you.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a message so powerful that it’s still being spread today.

How can you encourage others to spread your message? The first step is to have a powerful message — don’t hold back.

Final Thoughts

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a master of connecting with people, both one-on-one and from the stage. If there is one reason for his success, this was it.

Like all people, he was far from perfect. He did leave behind a powerful legacy though and there are plenty of lessons to learn from him. Take the good and leave what you don’t like.

ABOUT THIS SERIES: Every Monday, I analyze the good, bad, and ugly about the marketing behind a common business or famous personality. See other posts in this series here and, if you have a request for something (or someone) you’d like me to analyze for this series, contact me via Twitter.

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