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Swim With the Sharks or Sleep With the Fishes: The Marketing Wisdom of the Godfather

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[DISCLAIMER: The ideas and opinions expressed in the following article are not intended to represent the views of Paramount Pictures or its affiliates.]

By Eric Swartz, TaglineGuru

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 revenues1 it has earned or the numerous awards2 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.

“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” – Clemenza to Rocco, after killing Paulie (I)

Rule #2: Make It Personal

The old adage still applies: Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Your customer is the center of the universe, not your product. Don’t pay lip service…provide customer service. Sweeten the deal. Use a carrot rather than a stick. Go high touch, not high tech. Put a human face on your organization. Make your messages intimate and conversational, and use the magic word “YOU” with reckless abandon. Keep your promises and commitments so that it’s an advantage to become and remain your customer. One wonders whether PeopleSoft employees and customers will get enough cannoli to keep them satisfied in their extended Oracle family. Making it personal means conveying your passion and contagious enthusiasm, and letting your humanity shine through. After all, your goal is to build relationships, not sell widgets.

“Let us draw water from the well.” – Barzini to the other Dons, referring to Don Vito (I) and “Let me wet my beak a little” – Don Fanucci to young Vito (II)

Rule #3: Emphasize Solutions

Let’s face it, if you’re in business, you’re here to solve your customers’ problems. Become an indispensable resource and share the bounty. Communicate the benefits of doing business with your company, and find ways of contributing to their success. Tell your customers why they need your service now, and how you’re best equipped to produce measurable and positive results. Do everything in your power to make their job easier and give them peace of mind. Craft an overarching brand promise that your employees, customers, partners, and distributors can take to the bank. Fulfilling that promise means achieving consistency and delivering satisfaction. Make a real difference in the lives of your stakeholders and you’ll capture not only their business, but their loyalty.

“I want you to see what he’s got under his fingernails.” -- Don Vito to Luca Brasi, referring to Sollozzo (I)

Rule #4: Play To Win

Who are your main competitors and what are their core strengths and weaknesses? What position do they own and occupy? How do you stack up? Is your main message cutting through the clutter? If you’re not sure, perhaps a little digging for market intelligence is in order. Since you’re competing for mindshare, it means uncovering your competitors’ vulnerabilities and exploiting them. It also means keeping score of your messages and making each one count. Beat your competitors at their own game or make them play by your rules. Competitive positioning is more than just putting a stake in the ground and claiming it in the name of Spain. What claims are your competitors making? Perhaps they’re on shakier ground than you think. Although you don’t need a Luca Brasi to do your bidding, it helps to have a team of reliable sharpshooters, or an automated strategic market intelligence solution, to monitor the impact and reach of your messages and the extent to which your competitors are making inroads where you are not. Get a grip on your main message, keep your eye on the ball, and swing for the fences. This is one of the few opportunities you have to focus on why you’re in business and what makes you a player in the business you’re in.

“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”– Michael to Pentangeli (II)

Rule #5: Know Your Competitors

How well do you really know your competitors? What makes them tick? Can you anticipate their next move? To do so, you need to understand their motivations, needs, and intentions. Study your competitors. Learn and borrow from them. Redefine them to your best advantage. To compensate for your own weaknesses, build alliances and pursue friendly “co-opetiton” as part and parcel of a practical marketing strategy. You can find common ground with anyone, even the Fanuccis in your market space. There’s a strange symbiotic relationship that exists between adversaries (e.g., cops and criminals, political rivals, hosts and parasites, to name a few). In the world of business, positioning is relative and in a constant state of flux: Predators devour weaker prey (SBC/AT&T); some fish band together (Chevron/Texaco); some eat their own kind (Enron); and others migrate to warmer, more protective waters (MCI). The ones that adapt to their environment survive – and that means being able to strengthen one’s competitive position even in the face of overwhelming upheaval and opposition.

“He’s thinking of going to the mattresses.” -- Clemenza to Paulie and Rocco, referring to Sonny’s plan for an all-out war requiring his “button men” to sleep in makeshift warehouses and safe houses (I)

Rule #6: Seize the Moment

Your competitor is winning the battle of perceptions. You’re losing mindshare. What do you do? Buy more advertising time? Sponsor a big event? Hold a news conference? Hire a celebrity spokesperson? What if your budget is anemic…then what? Regardless of the scale of your marketing, the important thing is to take a stand, and then take action. Sonny Corleone was not known for his painstaking market research. This is not to suggest you should be rash and impulsive; however, at a certain point, you have to rely on your gut instincts as a marketer and go for it! After all, timing is everything. That’s how campaigns are won and lost. Raise the stakes by bringing urgency to your most important messages. Give your customers a deadline. Force them to make a decision. Hit them from all angles. Sometimes it takes more than numbers to arrive at a difficult decision – it takes nerve. So when the opportunity arises, be prepared to pull out the stops and launch an intense and targeted blitz. Anyway, you don’t want to be too predictable. Use the element of surprise to throw your competitors off guard. Carpe momentum!

“Michael, we’re bigger than U.S. Steel.” – Hyman Roth (II)

Rule #7: Think Big

If you’re going to compete with the “big boys,” you might as well put yourself in their class and category. Perception rules the roost – so start by changing the way you perceive yourself. Branding has a lot to do with confidence. If you act big, bold, and brilliant, chances are the world will see you that way, too. When it comes to marketing, every campaign you launch should embrace one big idea. Focus on the big picture, not the minutiae. Failure to do so will result in your message being diluted, drowned out, and quickly forgotten. Find a major theme to anchor and amplify your message. Put an appropriate frame around it to give it perspective and gravitas. Create affinity with your customers by capturing their hearts, touching a nerve, and becoming, well, unforgettable. Give the world a direct and definitive way to experience your brand on a grand scale. Where would we be without movers and shakers like Edison, Carnegie, Ford, Walton, and Gates who not only had great ideas that changed society, but knew how to market them effectively?

“I believe in America. America has made my fortune.” -- Bonasera to Don Vito (I)

Rule #8: Be Creative and Innovative

This opening line of The Godfather says it all: Pursue your dreams, make money, and become an entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word. This means shaking off old habits, exploiting any and all marketing opportunities, and occasionally taking the road less traveled. Being a “me too” brand or communicating a cookie-cutter message will not enhance your value or contribute to your lasting success. If we know anything about the American dream, it’s limitless…and it smiles on the marketer with a better, faster, and cheaper mousetrap. Look at the phenomenal growth and success of the iPod. Within a few short years, Apple applied its vision and resources, and virtually cornered the market for digital audio players that use hard drives. Innovation is either part of your corporate culture, or it’s not. Find a new solution to an old problem. Reinvent your old bag of tricks. Challenge yourself. Break from convention, but know the rules you’re breaking. Make your message fun and fresh. Surprise and delight an unsuspecting world. Of course, that means going the extra mile – but, as they say, it’s never crowded.

“This I cannot do.” -- Don Vito to Bonasera (I) and Michael to Don Altobello (III)

Rule #9: Know Yourself

With all due respect to Socrates, who popularized the famous inscription at the Apollo Temple in Delphi3 (“gnothi se auton”) and Shakespeare, who paraphrased it in Hamlet, Act I, Scene III (“to thine own self be true”), the maxim lives on in The Godfather. The Corleone patriarchs relied on the wisdom that comes with self-knowledge. Their values, both for good and ill, formed the unshakable foundation of their vision. Determine which ones are revered and shared within your organization. Remember, they’re not core values if you drop them because they end up costing you too much or put you at a competitive disadvantage. Values are universal and timeless. They stand the test of time and create a strong affinity with those who believe in your organization. Values, and the standards they uphold, provide insight into your organization’s brand character. The fundamental principles you cherish are the bedrock of your brand. They guide your organization’s behavior, and put the world on notice that there is some backbone behind your message. When all else slips and stumbles (e.g., the economy, your market share, your profits, etc.), you’ll always have your values to fall back on.

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” – Don Vito to Johnny Fontane, referring to Jack Woltz (I) and Michael to Fredo, referring to Moe Green (I)

Rule #10: Make It Compelling

What makes a brand memorable and a message compelling? Is it the free offer? The iron-clad guarantee? The gushing testimonials? The edgy creative and clever copy? It’s all those things…and more. A compelling message has a story behind it, a story with dramatic appeal. It’s show time! It’s time to make your customers go a-ha! It’s time to move and motivate them. It’s time to deliver the flawless elevator pitch, get the “yes,” and go for the close. However, you must first build trust by establishing a consistent track record. Second, communicate with your stakeholders often and listen for the gold (e.g., understand their needs, fears, frustrations, aspirations, etc.). Third, make them an offer they would be ill-advised to dismiss or ignore. This is the essence of marketing, the raison d’etre of your message, and the whole purpose of your campaign. If you follow the first nine rules, the final rule should be a “piece of cannoli.” After the dust has settled, if your customers still haven’t opened their hearts and wallets, revisit Rule #6 and think about going to the mattresses again!


The philosophy of The Godfather tells you everything you need to know about communicating a compelling message, owning and occupying a strong market position, and building and packaging a memorable brand. Whether your game is business or politics, survival is everything – protecting your turf, avoiding pitfalls, and capitalizing on opportunities, or, in other words, staying on top while improving the bottom line.

Your message is in a constant struggle to be heard and understood in a vast sea of competing messages. In the course of your marketing campaign, take time to review, test, and measure the reach and impact of your message, brand awareness, and competitive position. In a world where perceptions dominate, messages can be easily countered and co-opted, brands can weaken and wane from benign neglect, and competitive positions are subject to the old switcheroo. But here’s the good news: When you find yourself off-message, get back on track; if your brand needs a lift, give it a makeover; and if your position is assaulted, put your best button men (read guerrilla marketers) on the street. In sum, if “there’s a stone in your shoe, remove it.”

I suspect that in another thirty years, the lessons of The Godfather will be no less instructive. As long as we continue to thrive in a global marketplace where new ideas, services, and technologies comprise the intellectual currency of the realm, there will always be a need for tough, clever, and solution-oriented marketing.

To those marketers, message mavens, branding strategists, and competitive intelligence professionals who are inspired by the wisdom of The Godfather, Michael Corleone’s traditional Italian toast on the shore of Lake Tahoe is definitely in order: “Cent’Anni!”


1. The Godfather was the top-grossing film of 1972 and has generated about $135 million in total domestic (U.S. and Canada) box-office revenues, or $502.4 million converted into today’s dollars; The Godfather: Part II ($57.3 million or $195.2 million in 2005 dollars); and The Godfather: Part III ($66.7 million or $101.7 million in 2005 dollars).

2. The Godfather received ten Academy Award nominations and won three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Coppola and Puzo). The film earned five Golden Globe Awards, and Coppola won the coveted Directors Guild of America Award for best direction. It also received five New York Film Critics Circle nominations, with the win going to Robert Duvall for Best Supporting Actor. The Godfather: Part II received eleven Academy Award nominations and won six Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Robert DeNiro), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction (Dean Tavoularis and Angelo Graham; plus George Nelson for Set Decoration), and Best Original Score (Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola). It was also nominated for six Golden Globe Awards and two New York Film Critics Circle Awards, but did not win any. Al Pacino, however, won a British Academy award for Best Actor, and Coppola picked up another Directors Guild of America Award. The Godfather: Part III received seven Academy Award nominations but failed to win any Oscars. It also received seven Golden Globe Award nominations, with the only win going to Coppola for Best Director.

3. Not surprisingly, the other maxim inscribed at the Apollo Temple in Delphi is “nothing in excess.”

© 2005 Eric Stephen Swartz. All rights reserved.

This article was published as a Best Practices paper on the American Marketing Association web site (www.ama.org) in March, 2005.