Americans are obsessed with labels. But, is it branding or bragging? In this age of shameless self promotion, the line blurs.
When I was a kid parents preached that hard work, not hard sell, built reputations. Those were the days of quiet heroes like Hank Aaron who “let his bat do his talking”, and Neil Armstrong who took “one giant leap for mankind” then disappeared from view. Both are still household words.
It’s not that twentieth century Americans rejected self promotion. We embraced silver tongues, like Will Rogers. Our favorites, however, didn’t promote themselves so much as their ideals. That bred credibility.
When Will told us he never met a man he didn’t like, we believed him.
We were not easily fooled. With the exception of a few clunkers, like the Chevy Cavalier masquerading as a Cadillac Cimarron, we weathered the branding barrage.
Long before mass marketing, we preferred our pitch men to be the strong silent type. No brand ever trumped George Washington, whose been described as “the supreme example of eternal taciturnity and enigmatic wisdom couched in stoic silence.”
That is, until one Samuel Wilson came along.
Born in Massachusetts in 1766, he was nine when Paul Revere galloped by the family farm on his midnight ride.
His father was a minuteman at the Boston Tea Party and Bunker Hill. He helped run the farm while the men in his family served under General Washington.
He opened a meat packing plant along the Hudson River in Troy, New York which grew to employ over two hundred. For three decades Samuel gained a reputation for fairness, reliability, and honesty.
He was also known for sharing his wealth with others moving west. He became their unofficial family, never refusing a request for help.
With the War of 1812, the plant supplied troops salted meat under government contracts. Many soldiers were ex-employees.
The name United States was new then. Barrels of meat marked “U.S.”, not a well known brand, raised eyebrows. That, however, was before Samuel’s own brand took hold. His extended family of soldiers and settlers was happy to promote it.
By Samuel’s death in 1854 his brand was in wide use. Although it bore his likeness, Samuel Wilson dismissed the attention and shunned the publicity.
Now, two hundred years later, Sam’s brand is arguably the most recognized in the world. As a symbol of our country, it’s second to none.
Always the strong silent type, perhaps he would have relented a bit when in 1961 Congress proclaimed Samuel Wilson, the meat packer from Troy, New York, to be the progenitor of our nation’s symbol, “Uncle Sam.”
Malcolm D. Gibson
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