How two marketers created a fundamental American tradition

Jul 3, 2017

The term “thought leadership” is surely one of the most eyeroll-inducing terms in the marketing lexicon.

It’s overused to the degree that it’s easy to get jaded about the whole idea. Have marketers ever actually led the way people think?

Well, there’s the story of James Upham and Francis Bellamy. They were in the promotions department at a 19th century family magazine called The Youth’s Companion. When people subscribed, they received a promotional gift, ranging from watches to sewing machines.

In 1888, they launched a new promotion. Subscribe, get an American flag.

This was shortly after the Civil War. Flying a flag was uncommon, but there was swelling patriotic sentiment. (Coincidentally, the first known use of “thought leader” was right around this time as well.)

Sensing an opportunity to lead this national conversation, they successfully lobbied legislators and educators to install more flagpoles. They also convinced hundreds of schools to participate in a choreographed celebration marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in America, including a verbal flag salute they wrote themselves.

On Sept. 8, 1892, they published this pledge in Youth’s Companion. It’s now called the Pledge of Allegiance.

Today, the pledge is recited by 50 million students every school day, and spoken regularly everywhere from city halls to Girl Scouts meetings. Safe to say most people don’t realize this fundamental American tradition was created by a couple marketers.

Meanwhile, Youth’s Companion became the most popular weekly in the country, earning half a million subscribers and contributors ranging from Mark Twain to Emily Dickinson.

Long story short: don’t sit on the sidelines. Businesses can benefit by taking the lead in larger discussions well beyond their products and services.

After all, if the Pledge of Allegiance was a promotional effort, your brand can certainly be indivisible from a broader message.

Further examples of great thought leadership


Van Winkle’s
If Youth’s Companion became a thought leader on patriotism, Casper has become the leading authority on sleep. A bed and pillow company, they’ve organized a sleep symposium, created a chatbot for insomniacs, and have multiple blogs, including an amazing site called Van Winkle’s that talks about every sleep-related topic you can imagine. Maybe our favorite modern example.

Real Life
Snapchat has been building a brand that’s about way more than a silly messaging app. A great example is their online magazine Real Life, which publishes all sorts of avant garde writing about living with technology. Some of it’s flattering for technology companies, and some of it’s not. What matters is it’s thought provoking.

Sure, it’s easy to make an interesting magazine about technology, or even sleep, something everyone does. What about, say, facilities management? The key is not being boxed in by your product category. That’s why Sodexo, a global B2B food services company, launched a very cool healthy lifestyle website.

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