Bonnie Thomas had been dedicated to the social customer, smarter positioning, better content, and optimal acquisition or nearly a decade. As Director of Content Strategy for Lithium, she blogs about online communities, social business and the social customer experience on the Lithosphere as BonnieT. On Twitter, you can follow her @btsite.
I had the occasion to watch Godfathers Part I and II recently. Start to finish, without interruption. Although I’ve caught pieces of each many times over the years flipping through cable, I can’t say how long it’s been since I’ve watched the entire story unfold.
This time, it occurred to me that this is a story of watching the Corleone brand get built, achieve enormous influence, and eventually decline.
Corleone Began as a Social Brand
We meet our brand visionary, Vito Corleone, at his daughter’s wedding—at the peak of his power—with so many people packed onto the Long Island estate they’re crawling up the walls.
But it’s not until Part II that we see the Corleone nation’s seed, its roots, how it was cultivated and why it flourished. Part II has always been my favorite of the two. Perhaps this is why.
The first most striking thing about Vito in the early years is that he’s an enormously social animal. Dropped at Ellis Island without connections or a word of English at age 9, by the time he’s a young adult, this man is dialed in. Another 30 years, and he’s a man of colossal influence.
“You ever need a favor, you come, we talk,” we hear the future Don as a young man again and again in the streets of early 20th Century New York. Vito knew how to run a social business. Building relationships with the grocers, the street vendors, his neighbors—perhaps the original Dale Carnegie, our Vito knows how to win friends and influence people.
The Corleone Brand Delivered Excellent Experiences
But Vito knows it’s not just about cultivating awareness. The Corleone brand is undeniably about building strong relationships by meeting expectations and over-delivering in surprising ways. When a widow from the neighborhood petitions him to speak to her landlord and overturn an eviction, Corleone not only delivers, but also gets her rent lowered by $10 a month. When his business partners are squeezed by Don Fanucci, the Black Hand, Vito offers to get Fanucci to back down. Not only does he again deliver, he disposes of the Black Hand entirely, significantly changing the day-to-day experiences of not just his partners, but the entire neighborhood.
The Corleone Brand Essence: Loyalty
The Corleone brand was built on a culture of service. With laser focus, Vito constantly considers the world from the customer point of view. He doesn’t think about the expense of going out of his way to provide a service for the poor widow. He takes on enormous risk by disposing of Fanucci to benefit the neighborhood. He sees his actions an opportunity to build loyalty—to Vito, synonymous with brand equity.
And he’s right. In Vito’s Little Italy years, we discover beautifully how loyalty becomes the Corleone brand essence and how magically it propels brand influence.
The Height of Corleone Brand Prowess
30 years on, Vito is still the essence of loyalty. In the opening scene of Part I, we meet Vito as he is petitioned by the local undertaker to do murder for vengeance. The Don asks the man why he should do this favor—the undertaker is not a Corleone customer and he’s offended the Don in the past.
In the end, Vito decides to do business with the undertaker because he’s in the habit of building relationships, building brand equity through loyalty. (Something that will come in very handy when he needs Sonny’s mutilated body cleaned up for the funeral.) Vito seals the deal with Sicilian affection—a kiss, an embrace, reassurances that the requisite services will be provided.
Throughout both films, we hear the phrase again and again, “provide a service”.
The Corleone brand was built on a customer-centric, culture of service, grown from the heart of loyalty. In the mature full blossom of the Corleone brand, we then see Vito outside in the sunshine, enjoying the wedding party, smiling, dancing, mixing it up with his loyal customer base—his superfans.
Life is good for the Family.
Corleone Brand Erosion
But by the 1940s, the category has matured. The competitive landscape is fierce. As power is transferred from the aging Vito to his eldest boy, Sonny, the Corleone brand goes adrift. Sonny is obsessed with power and stamping out the competition. His decidedly uncustomer-centric decisions are motivated by the promise of quick profit. Vito warns that Sonny’s interest in entering a new category—narcotics—will alienate their loyal customer base of politicians, judges, and police. Sonny doesn’t listen.
By the late 50s, Vito and Sonny are both dead. Younger son Michael is in now control and we see the great contrast between his and Vito’s brand stewardship. Markedly unsocial, Michael’s decisions are utterly centralized, informed through interaction with only with an anointed few from an ivory tower. The few times we see him in public—at Anthony’s first communion party, in a Havana nightclub—he barely speaks and most certainly never smiles.
Michael Corleone’s key drivers are self-protection and dominance and this now becomes the Corleone projected brand image. He seems to have no relationships with his constituency. In fact, he seems to have no relationships whatsoever. His perspective on the subject of loyalty has become fully warped, centered on loyalty gotten, not given—encapsulated poignantly in the new Don Corleone’s order that his own brother, poor Fredo, is murdered.
In the final sequence of this great tragic story of the rise and fall of an iconic brand, we see Michael alone on the Tahoe estate, devoid of character, standing for nothing, remembering his early years. We flash to a scene back in New York at the dinner table when a young Michael tells older brother Sonny that he’s enlisted in the army.
Sonny is furious and demands to know why. “I want to serve my country,” young Michael replies quietly.
Slow dissolve and we are back with middle-aged Michael in Nevada who for all his wealth and power is quite clearly an empty shell. We can’t help but wonder with him, “What would the Corleone brand be now if only the culture of service had been preserved?”