Napoleon on horseIn 1793 Napoleon Bonaparte was a young officer fighting a gruesome battle at the Siege of Toulon. He had not yet become the great general or Emperor that we all know today, but nonetheless, even as a young man, he displayed a shrewd and calculating knowledge of how to lead men and affect their actions to further his goals.

Napoleon, a 24-year-old Captain at the time, had set up a gun battery in a forward position. In fact, the battery was so far forward that Napoleon’s superiors said he would never get anyone to man it. The battery was so close to the enemy and so exposed that to take up the post meant guaranteed death by enemy artillery. Indeed, the first men ordered to the post refused. Undeterred, Napoleon had one of his sergeants create a wood placard with a message on it and place the placard on a stake near the gun battery. The message on the placard read: The Battery for the Men Without Fear. The position was manned day and night from that point on by soldiers eager to prove their heroism, and Napoleon’s battery dominated the city’s harbor. The resulting withdrawal of the British Royal Navy led to French victory and the start of Napoleon’s illustrious career.

So what does this teach us about marketing? Speak to people’s deepest emotions in order to succeed.

Here are some of those deep emotions which, when activated, lead people to take action:

  1. Pride (specifically in one’s background, country, religion, etc…)
  2. Manliness or femininity
  3. Feeling of safety

Of course, the idea of appealing to these elements within people is not new. You can see each of the three above examples in any Chevy truck commercial. If you drive a Chevy truck you are not only safer than others on the road, but you also manlier than non-Chevy truck drivers, and also more proud of America. Chevy hits as many of your emotions as possible. But wait, what about Ford? Ford’s commercials say their trucks carry more weight and make you more manly. And then there’s Dodge, and Toyota..oh damn, they all say they are the most manly. One can pull a train, one can stop an airplane, one can drive off after a 3-ton rock is dropped in its bed. This is the equivalent of Napoleon having four gun batteries and placing the same placard in front of all of them. It wouldn’t have worked. A superlative is, by definition, an exclusive thing. There can only be one best, manliest, sexiest, bravest, —–est.

So, continuing our truck example, we have four pickup trucks lined up in front of us. Each truck has a wooden placard in front of it saying: Truck for the strongest men.

Confused, we all stand in a clump staring at one sign then another then another. Noticing our apparent confusion, the makers of Dodge, Chevy, and Ford quickly decide to tap into a different emotion. We watch as a new sign is posted in front of each of the three trucks saying: Truck for men who really love America.


Well, now we’ve pretty much turned away from Toyota because we all want to support America. But, we still stand in confused clump, unsure of which truck to choose because they all claim the same superlatives. Noticing this, the makers of the trucks go to great lengths to show us how strong their truck’s frames are, and how they perform in crashes. They each post a third placard in front of their trucks saying: For men who love their families.

I’m sure you can all see the pattern here. I will not go further into the unending stream of wooden placards shown to us. The point, I’m sure, is obvious. If everyone is “the best,” then no one is.

So what does this teach us about marketing? I think it teaches us that what was revolutionary for Napoleon is now commonplace. Napoleon “thought outside the box” and chose to approach his men though different channels than just passing orders down the chain of command. Today, however, Napoleon’s tactics are very much “in the box.” As such, it is important that marketers pay special attention to how the competition is appealing to consumers; not to mimic it, but to intentionally take a different course.

This is especially true in online marketing where the ability to target consumer micro-segments is unprecedented. Find the people you want and then hit their emotions in ways that they haven’t been hit before. At first it is likely scary, just like it would be scary to tell Ford to stop fighting the “I’m more manly that you are” fight. But, if you take a second and step back, move outside the traditional marketing dogma under which you were trained, you will see the true genius of Napoleon: Approach people differently than they are currently being approached.

Be different. Prove your superiors wrong. Lead people to the actions you want them to take. Market like Napoleon.

Written by Matt Peters
Matt is the Co-Founder and CEO of Pandemic Labs, and enjoys thinking about, writing about, and talking about social media marketing whenever someone will let him.