Neil Armstrong: Ode to Trustmarks

Graeter’s Black Raspberry Chip ice cream.  I took my first bite at the insistence of Neil Armstrong, while visiting him to discuss the management of his endorsement requests.  He promised it would be the best ice cream I ever tasted.  He was right.

How fitting! Graeter’s has been as selective in managing its brand—largely because of its desire to control product quality and its ensuing limited distribution—as Neil was.

He refused overexposure.  Refused to capitalize on his name.   Pete, one of Neil’s Cincinnati friends, fondly tells the story of Neil being upgraded to first class on a flight to Florida. Pete recounts, “Neil and I were awaiting a flight to Florida and had to be switched to another plane.  As Neil got to the counter just ahead of us, he was upgraded to first class.  He turned, waved his boarding pass at us, and with a school kid’s grin said ‘I’ve been upgraded to first class.’  When I replied, ‘Neil, I’ll bet that happens regularly,’ his response was ‘No, it does not.’  And he showed me the boarding pass, which said N.A. Armstrong – no hint of his first name!  Classic Armstrong!”

Partly aided by a shy temperament but more by ethics, he saved his voice for when it mattered — discussing the future of NASA, complimenting fellow Purdue alum Sully Sullenberger for joining the “pilots who land in strange places club,” inspiring future engineers and astronauts.

Neil would rarely lend his name to something.  When he did, it mattered and meant something.  It reminds me of a lesson from Interbrand Deputy Chairman Tom Blackett, who wrote: “I first visited Soweto in the early nineties, just before the end of apartheid. Back in those days there were few amenities for the over two million people who lived there: some schools and hospitals and just one shopping centre of significant size. Apart from the surprising diversity of the housing (tin shacks to walled villas) and the great crowding and poverty, my abiding memory is of the “spazzas.” These are small open-air shops, little more than trestle tables stacked with a few household necessities — flour, detergents, rice, coffee — which enterprising Sowetans run for the benefit of their neighbors. I remarked to my guide that the products on display were all leading brands and asked why, as the people were so poor, cheaper alternatives were not available. The answer was simple: these people had so little money that they just could not afford to risk buying a brand they did not know and trust. In fact, among poor South Africans such brands are known as “trustmarks.” Nothing I have learned since about brands has taught me more about the value of reputation!” (Chips and Tips – Trustmarks, December 8, 2003)

Few of us are faced with managing a personal reputation for which a eulogy is written prior to our passing; Neil Armstrong was one of the few.  William Safire prepared a eulogy for Richard Nixon to deliver should the lunar module fail to get back up into orbit.  “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. . . . In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations.  In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.”

 The value of reputation—of “trustmarks”—is not wasted on Max Eisenbud, agent for tennis star Maria Sharapova. Eisenbud jokes that Armstrong’s alma mater was too difficult (“I could barely get through Purdue,” he is quoted as saying).  In fact, Harvard Business School teaches a case study on the success of Maria Sharapova’s brand, which she credits to Eisenbud’s meticulous management.  Refusing to “sell” Sharapova, Eisenbud has negotiated contracts worthy of one of the world’s best female tennis players and athletes—Motorola, Canon, TAG Heuer, Nike, Land Rover—and is now helping her build a candy product, Sugarpova.  It should be a sweet complement to the “trustmarks” with which Sharapova’s brand is already associated.

There will be few things as sweet to me as my first taste of Black Raspberry Chip ice cream— or my memories of the first man to walk on the moon.  Godspeed, Neil Armstrong, as the vestiges of your presence on earth slip into the sea, and thanks for the lessons.

Copyright, September 10, 2012

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