5 marketing lessons from Abraham Lincoln

It was 150 years ago tonight that Abraham Lincoln was shot while watching a play at Ford's Theatre. 

And while Lincoln is often remembered as one of the greatest Presidents who helped abolish slavery, he was also a skilled communicator who mastered the art of marketing and public relations. 

On the anniversary of his death, here are five marketing and leadership lessons we can learn from one of the most gifted and memorable orators in American political history. 

1. Your reputation is everything

Reputation is like fine china, once broken it’s very hard to repair.
— Abraham Lincoln

Abe Lincoln was a master at gaining favour with the White House press corps. He spent hours sharing quotes and stories with the reporters, sometimes even writing his speeches right in their newsrooms as journalists watched. 

That's because Lincoln knew his reputation was in the hands of the people who revealed information to the world. 

Furthermore, Lincoln knew that building a brand on authenticity and honesty was the best way to get the American people to trust him. That's why he earned the name "Honest Abe." 

2. Spend more time listening than marketing

In 1861 Lincoln spent more time outside the White House than in it to meet every single Union soldier who enlisted early in the Civil War.

And when he was in the office, he had an open door policy. He spent 75% of his day meeting with people.

Lincoln knew that people were his best source of information -- especially those on the frontline. 

Getting the best information not only helped him make more informed decisions, but that kind access of also built trust. And every effective communicator knows that persuasion and influence are built on the currency of trust. 

3. Persuade rather than coerce

I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.
— Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln held one of the most powerful offices in the world, but he never strong-armed people. Instead, he persuaded them.

He made them his friends. He made them like him. 

Although Lincoln himself would coin some of the most memorable political lines of all time, one of his favourite quotes was "a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” 

He knew that people prefer to say yes to a request or an idea to the degree that they know and like the person making the request. In his speeches and his letters, he chose his words carefully to uncover similarities between himself and the person he was trying to influence. 

Even when handling his subordinates, Lincoln never gave strict orders. He made requests. 

  • To McClellan (10-13-63): “…This letter is in no sense an order.”
  • To Halleck (9-19-63): “I hope you will consider it…”
  • To Burnside (9-27-63): “It was suggested to you, not ordered…”

4. Allow yourself to be vulnerable

Lincoln never hid his own pain at times of great despair. When his son, Willie, died of tuberculosis in 1862 he shared his grief with the nation. 

He also wasn't afraid to own up to his mistakes and take responsibility for his failures -- even if that made him look weak. 

Take this letter to General Ulysses S. Grant for example: 

I write this now as a grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you reached the vicinity of Vicksburg… I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I that the expedition could succeed… I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.

Marketers, PR folks and leaders often think they need to "spin" a wrong decision or negative situation to maintain a strong image. 

But Lincoln understood that by allowing himself to be vulnerable he would not only stay true to his own brand built on integrity and honesty, but also encourage innovation and risk taking by making it OK for others to fail. 

5. Influence people through storytelling

They say I tell a great many stories. I reckon I do; but I have learned from long experience that plain people, take them as they run, are more easily influenced through the medium of a broad and humorous illustration than in any other way…
— Abraham Lincoln

By all accounts, Lincoln was a master storyteller, and he actively used his oratory skills to win people over. 

He knew that humans relate to one another through stories, and used stories as a tool to bring people together on issues they were divided over. 

Facts and statistics are great to make a point, but when people hear a speech what do they remember? The stories.