Perhaps more than any other movie in the last thirty years, none has been assimilated into the lexicon of mainstream popular culture as much as The Godfather (1972) and its epic sequel – The Godfather: Part II (1974).

The revered place that The Godfather occupies in the American psyche is a testament not only to the box-office revenues (1) it has earned or the numerous awards (2) it has won; rather, what distinguishes The Godfather from other popular movies is the extent to which its dialogue is quoted chapter and verse. Its wit and wisdom have become, for lack of a better term, a guidepost in our daily lives: “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” became the de facto mantra for advertisers, late-night comedians, and wiseguy wannabes; “Leave the gun…take the cannoli” epitomized the moral ambiguities and necessities of everyday life; and Luca Brasi (Don Vito Corleone’s chief enforcer) is often invoked on MSNBC’s Hardball when host Chris Matthews takes issue with some heavy-handed tactics in the political arena.

Background and Theme of The Godfather.

The screenplays for each of The Godfather films were co-written by Francis Coppola, the film’s director, and Mario Puzo, the author of the best-selling novel. In their unique collaboration, they refashioned a story about gangsters and elevated it to the level of myth – a cinematic tour de force which has long been praised for its poignant and tragic portrait of the Corleone “crime” family and its insight into a brutally corrupt economic system that sows the seeds of the family’s inevitable downfall.

As Coppola himself has remarked, the parallel lives of Vito and Michael are a thinly disguised metaphor for America and American capitalism. Underlying this metaphor, however, is a contradiction, namely, that the ideals of opportunity and social mobility are undermined by the destructive realities of the capitalist system, i.e., the unbridled desire for profit and power. The family empire that Vito builds is one that Michael cannot preserve. It is fragile and impermanent — its loyalties based on the vagaries of business, not on the close-knit bonds of family and community. Michael’s yearning for acceptance and legitimacy, although sympathetically portrayed, remains largely unattainable.

Applying the Marketing Wisdom of The Godfather.

Although many articles have already made the obvious link between the wisdom of The Godfather and its applications to the wider business world, no one, to my knowledge, has specifically applied The Godfather’s system of beliefs and code of conduct to the world of marketing, branding, and competitive positioning.

There are many lessons to be learned: The marketplace in which companies go head to head is no less contentious, fierce, or profit-driven. The Barzinis, Tattaglias, and Sollozzos of the so-called legitimate business world are trying to expand their territory (read market share and mindshare); and the Hyman Roths and Johnny Olas, once your business allies, are now formidable competitors threatening to weaken your tenuous market position. They’re all playing to win, and want nothing more than to knock you off the shelf, as it were.

Instead of a battle of bullets, it’s a war of words and a jockeying of positions. It’s a world in which perception is power. Since sitting on the sidelines is not a viable option, you’ll either prevail (e.g., enjoy champagne cocktails in the mountains) or fail (e.g., find Khartoum’s head in your bed). There’s an old Sicil-icon Valley expression: you can either swim with the sharks or sleep with the fishes, but you can’t do both.

The distilled wisdom of The Godfather is a page taken right out of the marketer’s playbook. Successful marketing campaigns rely on persuasive attempts to achieve market dominance, cultivate customer loyalty, and convince prospects and customers to take immediate action. To be successful, you must articulate a clear vision, embrace a set of core values, and redefine the competition to your best advantage (without the accompanying murder and mayhem, of course). To remain successful, you must leverage your credibility, influence, and market intelligence in ways that make your competitors shudder in their shiny black shoes. Well, at least that’s the general idea.

First off, let’s make some key distinctions between the world of The Godfather and the commercial marketplace as we know it today. First, enemies will henceforth be referred to as competitors. Competition in your business world is with other companies and their products, not with individuals (“It’s business, not personal”). Secondly, no illegal or immoral tactics are glorified or condoned in this paper (“Blood is a big expense”). Finally, I apologize in advance for any pearls of marketing wisdom from The Godfather that may have escaped my attention (“Don’t overestimate the power of forgiveness”).

The Top 10 Rules of The Godfather.

This paper focuses on the top ten rules that embody the wisdom of The Godfather — rules that all competitive marketers and branding strategists should heed and follow. Each rule provides insight and direction designed to help you align your message, strengthen your position, and expand your brand. The rules are gleaned from actual quotes found in each Godfather movie, including The Godfather: Part III (1990) which, although not as critically acclaimed as the first two, deftly plays out the saga of Michael’s dashed dreams, operatic self-destruction, and ignominious defeat. In some cases, the same or similar quote appears in more than one film – giving it added thematic importance.

“Our ships must all sail in the same direction.”- Don Lucchesi to Michael (III)

Rule #1: Inspire Loyalty

Whoever first said “lead, follow, or get out of the way” must have been Sicilian. Maybe it originated with Cristóbal Colón who realized he didn’t have a chance of making it to the new world without a vision (finding a new trade route to India) backed by ample financing and a loyal crew. One cannot underestimate the importance of having a bold vision that moves and inspires others: it defines the very purpose of your organization, is a reflection of your culture and belief system, and serves as a barometer of the values shared by your key stakeholders. More importantly, a strong vision stands alone – independent of external factors such as market share, profit, or competitive climate. Since each of your stakeholders (e.g., customers, employees, prospects, management, investors, etc.) has a slightly different perspective, align your message appropriately in order to unite them under a single banner and a common mission. Engage their sensibility. Stretch their imagination. Invite them along for the ride of a lifetime. Finally, inspire their loyalty by focusing their hopes and aspirations on the “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG) that guides them to the same distant horizon.