Mark Twain: Bad at Business, but Brilliant at Branding
While Twain remains among the most famous and successful storytellers in U.S. history, he also possesses a more infamous legacy as one of the nation’s worst businessmen. Yet Twain's saving grace emerged in the author's capacity to market his own persona. Twain was bad at business, but brilliant at branding. And his brand story needs to be told.
The Road to Bakruptcy
The year is 1889: 5 years after publishing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain holds superstar status as America's most popular author and one of the era’s most widely loved public figures. He can earn up to $25,000 a month in lecture fees and royalties from his books. Adjusted for inflation, that $25k would now equal over $615k per month—simply for lectures and royalties. His home, (today a national landmark and museum), is a luxurious mansion in an exclusive neighborhood of Hartford Connecticut, one of the country's richest cities.
And yet all this success isn’t enough for Twain. After all, this is late 19th century America, a period Twain himself referred to as The Gilded Age: An age in which the bright promise of unimaginable fortune outshines the harsher realities of social life.
It is an age in which speculative investment in the nation's seemingly endless industrial expansion gives rise to a perpetually deferred desire for more: More wealth, more property, more growth. Beautiful as it is, Twain’s Hartford mansion (above) lacks the palatial opulence emerging along the "millionaire row " section of New York’s 5th Ave--where the estates of industrial tycoons like John Jacob Astor (below) and Cornelius Vanderbilt stand like testaments to an new era of unprecedented wealth.
Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens
Mark Twain has seen tremendous success as a writer. But Twain is more than a writer: He is also an avid inventor, speculator and entrepreneur. The very name "Mark Twain" is in fact an invention, the psuedonymic pen-name created by Samuel Clemens. The very name operates as a play on words that reflexively refers back to itself: To exist in text as "Mark Twain" is to be marked twain--marked twice, doubled--in print. Clemens's authorial second self, the name "Mark Twain" is itself a story, at once the fictional creator and character of fictions.
Yet while the literary stock of the "Mark Twain" name continues to soar, Clemens' investment portfolio reads like tragedy. He regularly sinks thousands of dollars at a time—a huge sum for an individual—into any stock that happens to catch his fancy. He holds three U.S. patents and has bought the rights to several more. He develops obsessive enthusiasms for marketing odd devices--for instance, a pair of grape scissors, a self-pasting scrapbook, a chalk-based printing process, an improved bed clamp (to keep children from kicking off their blankets), a history boardgame (he created for his daughters), and a steamboat paddle wheel that could cut through the ice floes in the Arctic. Meanwhile, he has passed on early opportunity to invest in Alexander Graham Bell's new fangled "telephone."
It takes a certain talent to be this bad at investing. Clemens passes on the telephone, but remains stubbornly committed to era’s most precarious tech start-up: The Paige typesetting machine, a potentially transformative device for the printing industry that will mean millions for investors—if only the inventor, James W. Paige, could manage to get the thing to actually work.
Skip ahead 5 years to 1894: Clemens holds on to the dream of Paige’s wondrous typesetter. He remains the machines biggest backer. For Clemens, Paige's technology promises more than wealth. Clemens' investment the Paige compositor is fueled by a bigger vision. The ambitions of the Paige design philosophy transcended the practical demand for more efficient typesetting technology. Employing a system of notches and grooves to automate type recognition and placement, Paige's design vision effectively mechanizes reading and writing. For Clemens, himself a former typesetter, Paige's ty-recognition system effectively reproduces the cognitive labor of human typesetters. The Paige machine comes to represent a paragon of industrial invention: An mechanical brain, the promise of an authorial automaton. Clemens refers to the compositor as an incredible "thinking thing," a device that manages to contain "thought solidified" into a "brain machine." In Clemens eyes, the Paige compositor (shown below) promises to revise the very concept of the human. Caught up in a obsessive mania of Frankensteinian ambition, Clemens has now invested the staggering sum of nearly $170,000 into the invention. But the device fails to produce more than a single line of print, and by the end of the 1894, sinks Clemens into bankruptcy.
The Path to Financial Recovery
The full story behind Clemens fall into bankruptcy is too long to recount here. Less discussed, however, are the remarkable terms of his financial recovery. Though not legally required to do so, Clemens eventually paid off all of his creditors in full. It wasn’t easy. To dig himself out of debt, Clemens dove back into storytelling.
In January 1895, he finished Tom Sawyer, Detective, a frank attempt to cash in on the current rage for Sherlock Holmes and detective fiction in general. At the end of the month, after what he figured had been twelve years of preparation and two years of intense but intermittent work, Clemens planned to publish his novel Joan of Arc—though he thought the novel would have more success if published anonymously.
Despite the income Clemens anticipated from these projects, it was clear that he would have to lecture that year and the next. Lecturing remained his most lucrative short-term source of income. But it was also the most exhausting. His dread of “the impending horror of the lecture platform” made him depressed and tired, unable to write—“ The mill refuses to go.” He began to feel that he had been condemned to walk in a large circle. Approaching sixty and about $ 100,000 in debt, he was to start on a yearlong tour which even a young man might find too strenuous. Thirty years earlier he had dreamed of traveling around the world, of visiting China and the Paris Exposition, then coming home, only to start all over again. Now, in order to pay off his creditors, he had to lecture his way to the Pacific Northwest and from there to Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon, India, and South Africa; even after that he would not go home but would go instead to England, where, in some quiet village with his reunited family, he hoped to spend six months or so writing a travel book--again for the benefit of his creditors, about his round-the-world lecture tour.
In 1895, as "Mark Twain" began once again to be a public performer and celebrity, the author tasted the first of a nearly unbroken succession of welcomes and ovations. Wherever he went, he read to capacity audiences; the halls were hardly ever big enough. He netted $5,000 from his one month in North America; he was to net $2,200 just from his first two weeks in Australia. (Below, on the right, a photo of Clemens traveling by ship to Australia for his 1895 world lecture tour.)
Clemens was in need of ego-building, and the tour gave him plenty. He wrote to a colleague that he “now knew that he had friends all over the United States.” Twain went on:
It is a little immodest in me to talk about paying my debts, when by my own confession I am blandly getting ready to unload them on the whole English-speaking world…. Lecturing is gymnastics, chest-expander, medicine, mind healer, blues destroyer, all in one. I am twice as well as I was when I started out. I have gained nine pounds in twenty-eight days, and expect to weigh six-hundred before January. I haven’t had a blue day in all the twenty-eight.
He told his financial manager Henry Harper that there was no longer any point to publishing Joan of Arc anonymously. He wanted to keep his name before the public, for, as if he expected never to be tired again and even to live forever, he intended to start on another American lecture tour just as soon as he got back. He had heard, he noted, that people in India knew only three things about America: “George Washington, Mark Twain, and the Chicago Fair.” Everywhere he went every word he said was hung upon and repeated.
Banking on the unseen success of the Paige machine, Clemens had invested and lost all the royalties of his massively popular The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn. Yet the popularity of that novel, along with his other fictions, established the basis for Mark Twain’s recognition on a world scale. Mark Twain had become more than a penname—it was a global brand. Samuel Clemens created the Mark Twain Company in 1908 as a way to control the use of his name and to protect his literary copyrights. He had failed in an earlier attempt to trademark his pseudonym, and he had a limited success at keeping others from using his name, image, and celebrity to sell their products—everything from postcards and stereoview cards, to lithographs, soap, sheet music, board games, and cigars.
In short, Mark Twain became among the era's most popular brand affiliations. No evidence links Clemens to the production of "Mark Twain Cigars, "but his fame and popularity were used to market the product from as early as the 1870s. The image from a cigar box first manufactured in 1913 (to the right), includes the slogan,“Known to Everyone – Liked by All”--a slogan first coined by Mark Twain, and employed in handbills to promote the author's lectures in the 1880s.
Despite the uncertainties of the era’s volatile economic climate, the popularity of the Mark Twain brand ultimately highlights the power and importance of marketing strategies based in effectively styled storytelling. In the end, it was the "Mark Twain" brand that, built on the relationships forged between his audience and his stories, cultivated the enduring cultural capital that ultimately pulled the author out of financial collapse.
Over a century before storytelling emerged as the essential component of brand growth, Clemens had cultivated the name "Mark Twain" in a distinct narrative legacy that combined acerbic wit with humanistic pathos. The power of the Mark Twain brand emerges through stories told in a signature voice and style that, somehow, struck a seemingly impossible mix of contrary chords: At once ironic and sincere; duplicitous yet authentic; complex yet accessible; populist yet never pandering; sophisticated yet never elitist--the Twain brand of humor spoke a language that everyone could understand.