I believe you can learn something from everyone—as long as you’re listening. We’re always building on the legacy and lessons of those who have come before us.

For marketers, this is quite a legacy indeed. Although the discipline of marketing only emerged in the 1900s, it builds on a foundation of sales, advertising, copywriting and relationship-building that is much older.

Some of its wisest teachings are hundreds of years old. Some of its big lessons happened only months ago. And for every brilliant marketer and thinker mentioned here, there are likely 10 more I haven’t thought of. (Would love to hear your picks in the comments!)

Nonetheless, I hope there’s some wisdom for the ages below. I loved learning about each personality and philosophy, and hope you will too. Here are 40 essential lessons from some of the most famous marketers in history.

1. ‘A brand is a contract’

simon clift

Who: Simon Clift

What: The former Chief Marketing Officer of Unilever likes to say “a brand is the contract between a company and consumers.” The consumer has choices, and can simply choose to enter a contract with another brand if they find a company “in breach” of the contract. Are you holding up your end of the bargain with consumers?

2. ‘Always be closing’

glengarry glen ross

Who: Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross

What: This famous line from Glengarry Glen Ross is a well known sales mantra expressing that everything you say and do should be done with only one goal in mind: closing the deal. A more modern, less ruthless take for today’s world? The customer is always listening and evaluating. Even if you’re not consciously selling, everything you do is part of your marketing.

3. ‘Appeal to the reader’s self-interest’

John Caples

Who: John Caples

What: One of the most famous copywriters of all time, Caples hit on a winning formula early with this ad:


The ad works because it doesn’t sell piano lessons, it sells self-esteem. (And who doesn’t want that?) Caples would repeat this formula again and again, each time appealing to a reader’s deepest self-interest. How can you go deeper in your marketing to know your customers’ self-interest motivation?

4. ‘Become interested’

Dale Carnegie

Who: Dale Carnegie

What: We are pretty big Dale Carnegie fans at Buffer, and his advice to truly be interested in others is no small part of why.  One of his famous quotes on the topic: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

5. ‘Break the internet’


Who: The Kardashians

What: Media pundits thought Kim Kardashian would break the internet when she bared all for Paper magazine, but the Kardashians’ real power move is to make sure they’re offering a multi-platform experience—much more than you see on social media, including custom emoji and a branded content portal.  “I see what we do on social media as the appetizer,” Khloe Kardashian told the New York Times. “Not everything we do can be captured in an Instagram shot.”

6. ‘Cash from chaos’

malcolm mclaren

Who: Malcolm McLaren

What: The man who largely initiated the punk movement, managing the infamous Sex Pistols, made “cash from chaos” his motto. He bore it out in stunts like getting arrested outside the Houses of Parliament, spreading rumors about the band and intentionally canceling gigs. What can we learn from this bad behavior? Today more than ever, controversy gets people talking (case in point: Kanye West). Hey, no publicity is bad publicity, right?

7. Details matter

walt disney

Who: Walt Disney

What: At Walt Disney’s Disneyland, every detail is thought through—to the point that the Disney team has planted “hidden Mickeys” throughout the park, which dedicated fans spend decades discovering and cataloging. When you pay attention to every detail of an experience, you can make fans for life.


8. ‘Eat your own dog food’

paul maritz

Who: Paul Maritz of Microsoft

What: This colorful colloquialism describes the idea that a company should be the biggest user and proponent its own products or services. The first recorded usage was in 1988, when Microsoft executive Paul Maritz e-mailed a colleague, “We are going to have to eat our own dogfood and test the product ourselves.” Are you your product’s biggest fan?

9. Educate your audience

john deere

Who: John Deere

What: John Deere may be best known for farm equipment, but he also has another distinction: He may very well have created content marketing. In 1895, he launched the magazine The Furrow, providing information to farmers on how to become more profitable. The magazine is still in circulation today, reaching 1.5 million readers in 40 countries in 12 different languages. Helping your audience grow and improve is always in fashion.

10. Find a star slogan

mary frances

Who: Mary Frances Gerety

What: Charged with kickstarting the sales of diamonds following the Great Depression, copywriter Mary Frances Gerety came up with the timeless gem “A diamond is forever” in the middle of the night. The slogan has since been used in every De Beers ad and in 1999 was named the slogan of the 20th century by Advertising Age. Today, more than 80% of women in the U.S. receive diamond rings when they get engaged. Think her campaign was effective?

11. Get people talking

conrad gessner

Who: Conrad Gessner

What: This botanist “invented” word of mouth marketing in 1559 with his passion for tulips. To familiarize Europeans with the then-foreign flower, he penned an easy-to-repeat poem that eventually spurred “Tulipmania”—some bulbs sold for what would be several million dollars today. What can you do to get people talking and create more demand?

12. ‘Give them quality’


Who: Milton Hershey

What: The founder of Hershey’s had a simple marketing philosophy: As long as consumers saw the high quality of Hershey’s’ chocolate, the product would practically sell itself. He’s know to have said: “Give them quality. That’s the best kind of advertising in the world.”

13. Harness your haters


Who: Beyoncé

What: When the world gives you lemons, just turn to Beyoncé to figure out how to turn them into lemonade. After getting negative feedback for her 2016 Super Bowl performance, including boycott calls, Queen Bey hatched a canny plan to turn the furor into a boon: She sold her own “Boycott Beyoncé” T-shirts on tour.


14. Headlines are everything

helen gurley brown

Who: Helen Gurley Brown

What: In 1965, Hearst hired Helen Gurley Brown to take over a flagging magazine called Cosmopolitan. Her revamp was heavy on sensational headline and earned millions of devoted readers, kickstarting the sexual revolution in the process. Today you can still get plenty of tips on writing great headlines right from the magazine racks.

15. Influencers make the brand

estee lauder

Who: Estee Lauder

What: The co-founder of Estée Lauder Companies, Lauder was the only woman on Time magazine’s 20 most influential business geniuses of the 20th century. Her marketing genius? Lauder gave her famous friends and acquaintances small samples of her products for their handbags; she wanted her brand in the hands of people who were known for having the best.

16. Issue a challenge

ernest shackleton

Who: Ernest Shackleton

What: Although its veracity isn’t certain, it’s still one of the most famous ads of all time. Explorer Ernest Shackleton supposedly sought to recruit men for a new expedition with this newspaper ad:

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

Whether or not it’s true, can we all agree it’s awesome? Don’t you wonder how you’d fare on this trip? To me, this taps the same impulse as modern-day hidden bars and speakeasies. We like a challenge, and tend to share it with others when it creates social currency for us.

17. ‘The job is not the work’

seth godin
Who: Seth Godin
What: Marketers get pulled in a lot of directions throughout the course of a day—and a career. When this happens, maybe this philosophy from Seth Godin might help. In Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, he defines the difference between the job and the work:

“The job is what you do when you are told what to do….Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. I call the process of doing your art ‘the work.’ It’s possible to have a job and do the work, too. In fact, that’s how you become a linchpin….The job is not the work.”

When you’re doing the job, remember to do the work, too. You’re the only one who can.

18. ‘Listeners will end up the smartest’

yi and bernoff

Who: Charlene Yi and Josh Bernoff

What: In an ever-changing media world, how do you keep up and stay relevant? The answer Yi and Bernoff proposed in their book Groundswell is a simple one: Keep learning, keep listening.  “We’re all learning here,” they write; “the best listeners will end up the smartest.”

19. ‘Make the customer the hero of your story’

Ann Handley

Who: Ann Handley

What: Everyone wants to be a hero. That’s the central idea of marketer Ann Handley’s contribution to our list, “make the customer the hero of your story.” Her suggestions to do this including content curation, user-generated content and using social media to tell bigger stories.

20. ‘Markets are conversations’

cluetrain manifesto

Who: The Cluetrain Manifesto authors Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger

What: In 2001, social media barely existed. But The Cluetrain Manifesto predicted a future of connectivity that would change the face of business, media, and culture.

“A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.”

What we learned then is still relevant today: We want a conversation, not a one-way ad barrage. Meet your audience where they are and get real with them.

22. ‘The medium is the message’

Marshall McLuhan
Who: Marshall McLuhan

What: When you communicate with someone, what’s more important: what’s actually said, or the method in which it’s communicated? McLuhan’s famous argument is that the medium is the message—that the two are so inextricably combined as to be one and the same. Now social media has proved him more prescient than ever. The reason we know when something is a Tweet vs. a Snap and understand the importance of choosing the right medium for each message? That’s McLuhan.

23. ‘Most ideas are a bit scary’

Lee Clow

Who: Lee Clow

What: The healthy fear of hitting the ‘publish’ button is something that comes up a lot on the blog. Feeling uncomfortable is often a sign you’re on to something big, as legendary advertiser and art director Lee Clow puts so beautifully: “Most ideas are a bit scary, and if an idea isn’t scary, it’s not an idea at all.”

24. Name your audience

Mel Martin

Who: Mel Martin

What: Hey, you! Yes, you right there. Media these days is fast-paced and confusing. Does your audience know you’re talking to them, specifically? If not, borrow a trick from copywriter Mel Martin and name them right in your message. Martin wrote headlines like “For golfers who are almost (but not quite) satisfied with their game — and can’t figure out what they’re doing wrong” and the above similar variation (hey, that means it must have worked, right?)

25. ‘Never stop testing’

david ogilvy

Who: David Ogilvy

What: Considered “The Father of Advertising,” Ogilvy was among the first to perfect the split test for marketing, where two versions of an ad were published at the same time with a unique way for consumers to respond so the winning ad could be identified. One of his most famous quotes: “Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”

26. ‘On fleek’

peaches monroee

Who: Peaches Monroee

What: Never heard of Peaches Monroee? You might know the phrase she coined that’s been appropriated by everyone from Ariana Grande to Anderson Cooper to IHOP: “on fleek.” She tossed off the catchphrase in a June 2014 Vine video that now has more than 40 million loops (views, for non-Viners). “I gave the world a word,” she has said. “I can’t explain the feeling.” These days, it’s not high-paid marketing execs who are creating the taglines of the future. It’s more often young people, particularly people of color. Embrace it and learn from it, but don’t misappropriate it.

27. Power up your network

Mary kay Ash

Who: Mary Kay Ash

What: Mary Kay cosmetics became a pioneer of multi-level marketing by tapping a great underutilized workforce: housewives. Her marketing innovations included expensive gifts (the famous pink Cadillacs) that extended the brand, offering incentives for recruiting others, and an emphasis on direct sales through friends and family. Learn from her: Your network can be a powerful tool.

28. Quarter-inch holes (vs. quarter-inch drill bits)

Theodore Levitt

Who: Theodore Levitt

What: Why do people buy quarter-inch drill bits? It might not be the reason you think. In The Marketing Imagination,  Theodore Levitt says:

“They don’t want quarter-inch bits. They want quarter-inch holes.”

The quarter-inch bit is only a means to an end. Marketing the drill bit based on its features (it fits into your drill) wouldn’t be as successful in this case as marketing it based on the benefits (you can create a quarter-inch hole). In other words, a feature is what your product does; a benefit is what the customer can do with your product.

29. Reinvent your medium


Who: Lin-Manuel Miranda

What: Chances are, you didn’t think much about Broadway until this year. What changed? Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smashHamilton.” It’s the world’s first (as far as I know) hip-hop musical, it’s about one of the least exciting people imaginable, and it’s cast of mostly people of color. It’s truly something new, and audiences can’t get enough of it. Lesson for marketers? Whatever medium you’re working in, stretch it, bend it in new directions and reinvent it. Then you can own it.

30. Sex sells

helen lansdowne
Who: Helen Lansdowne
What: Could this be the first example of “sex sells” marketing in the Western world?

skin you love to touch
In 1911, Helen Lansdowne changed the face of advertising forever by being the first to harness sex appeal in an ad. Her Woodbury soap “Skin You Love to Touch” campaign focused not on the product but its effects—“the attention of dashing young gentlemen.” Then as now, a hint of the sensual both scandalized and worked—the campaign increased Woodbury sales by 1,000 percent.

31. Surprise and delight

Taylor Swift

Who: Taylor Swift

What: There seems to be no consensus as to who came up with the phrase “surprise and delight,” so I’m going to give the title to the modern-day master, Taylor Swift. “Surprise and delight” experiences focus on randomly selecting an individual or group to receive a unique gift or experience, and Swift is the queen. She’s popped up at bridal showers and weddings, and her Swiftmas gift-giving is legendary. “Fans are my favorite thing in the world,”she has said. Her fans seem to feel the same about her. Do yours feel that way about you?

32. Tell a (real) story

P. T. Barnum

Who: P.T. Barnum

What: Hmm, this is a tough one. Creator of Barnum & Bailey P.T. Barnum is undoubtedly one of history’s greatest marketers, but what can the man of infinite hoaxes teach us today? Maybe that storytelling is powerful, but also that the story has to be authentic and real. Barnum proudly played a bit fast and loose with this, but then Twitter hadn’t quite been invented yet to fact check him.

33. ‘Think different’

Steve Jobs
Who: Steve Jobs

What: Why is Steve Jobs an enduring icon? Because he didn’t just sell us a phone; he sold us an experience. A way to live. An ideal to aspire to. Through him we learned to think different and to sell the dream as well as the product.

34. ‘Tune your message to them’

nancy duarte

Who: Nancy Duarte

What: The writer, speaker, and CEO best known for working with Al Gore on An Inconvenient Truth has a simple message for would-be presenters: It’s not about you. As she writes in Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences“The audience does not need to tune themselves to you—you need to tune your message to them. Skilled presenting requires you to understand their hearts and minds and create a message to resonate with what’s already there.”

35. Unique selling proposition

 rosser reeves

Who: Rosser Reeves

What: A “unique selling proposition “is the idea that successful advertising campaigns focus on a single, unique element that can nudge customers to switch brands. And advertising exec Rosser Reeves was the one to usher it into our vocabulary. Reeves’ ad is for Anacin, a headache medicine, was considered grating and annoying by many viewers but it also tripled the product’s sales. Another great Reeves example? M&M’s “melts in your mouth, not in your hand.”

36. Vulnerability connects

Tavi Gevinson

Who: Tavi Gevinson

What: How does a teenage girl create a media empire before she’s out of high school? For blogger, author and Rookie editor-in-chief Gevinson, the secret is relating deeply through vulnerability. “I think that when you make yourself vulnerable, the thing that you do next is better….The thing that bonds you to a new friend isn’t that you went to a fun party; it’s ‘cause you had a really weird, sad conversation.” Can you dig deeper and be more human with your community?

37. Write for someone specific

Tim Ferriss

Who: Tim Ferriss

What: How did Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Work Week become such a huge hit (besides promising copious leisure time)? He focuses on trust, the kind that comes only when you know your audience deeply. It may feel like you have to write for everyone, but Ferriss says the opposite is true. “Write for two of your closest friends who have this problem that you have now solved for yourself.”


38. ‘Write something worth reading or do something worth writing’

Ben Franklin

Who: Benjamin Franklin

What: Instructions for creating a legacy, whether you’re a human or a brand: Listen to Benjamin Franklin. His quote is the end-all on the topic of getting attention: “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing.”

39. 10x content

Rand Fishkin
Who: Rand Fishkin

What: Moz’s Rand Fishkin coined the term “10x content,” which is content that stands out in our busy streams because it’s just 10x times better than anything else out there on that topic.

40. ‘Your culture is your brand’

tony hsieh

Who: Tony Hsieh

What: “What’s a company to do if you can’t just buy your way into building the brand you want?,” the Zappos founder wrote in a pivotal blog post. “What’s the best way to build a brand for the long term? In a word: culture. We believe that your company’s culture and your company’s brand are really just two sides of the same coin…Your culture is your brand.”

Over to you!

Whose wisdom is missing here? I can’t wait to hear the lessons you’ve picked up from famous and up-and-coming marketers alike! Share your picks in the comments to add to our list.

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • David Ristuccia

    Fascinating article!

    I love #8. ‘Eat Your Own Dog Food’ is probably the best words to live by as a marketer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from past or prospective clients how a marketer, either digital or otherwise offered them the world, but couldn’t do the same for themselves.

    I’m sure there’s a time in every agencies life where you’re sitting at the table listening to a client tell you what a great job you’ve done for them in getting the phone to ring and thought to yourself ‘Then why isn’t MY phone ringing?!”. Never forget that the same basics that apply for your customers, the same thing you see time and again that makes you shake your head still applies for your business too!

    David Ristuccia

    • Hey David, thanks so much for checking this one out! I love your note here; what an awesome and passionate argument of the “eat your own dog food” rule. Totally agree!

  • Hi Courtney,
    What an amazing post ¡
    Great pick!
    Great collection!
    Indeed a collector’s item!
    I just bookmarked it!
    I like all mentioned in the list but the most like is the one of Benjamin Franklin’s
    I would like to repeat.
    In fact I quoted this in many of my writings.
    A quote a worth quotable or usable!
    Yes, I repeat.
    “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing.”
    Amazing one!
    Thanks for reminding us

    Best regards

    • Hiya Philip! Thanks for checking this one out. I like the Ben Franklin quote a lot, too. I think if you only had that philosophy for your whole marketing career you’d do pretty well!

  • Great article. I live by the theory life is all just market research. Constantly learning from others allows us to be bold ourself. #thinkpeacock don’t be like all the other pigeons out there. Learn from articles like this and be bold. http://Www.imaginenw.com

    • Wow, I love the “life is just market research” approach. What a great way to always keep growing and learning!

  • One thing that concerns me is the lack of integrity in much of what we call marketing today. “Always be closing” is a great example where sales come before humanity, but off course they can’t say that so they are laying trough their teeth, basically scamming the customer. One thing that attracted me to Buffer was open blog, transparency and integrity. More of that please.

    • Hey there Krunoslav! I totallly agree that “Always Be Closing” as used in the movie is a singularly terrible way to treat customers! I think it’s neat to try to find ways to get a universal truth out of some of these well known sayings and turn them around a bit. Can definitely see how this one might have missed the mark; thanks for the thoughts!

      • Agreed. And as you have pointed out its precisely because the way is it associated in that movie.

  • Nicolas Gattoni

    Great article!
    It would be awesome if we could see one of this lessons per day, or per week. So that you give the proper time to think about it.

    • Great point, Nicolas! I can see how this might feel like quite an overload! Really appreciate you sharing a great idea for the future with us!

  • Love the post and quotes on this post Courtney! 🙂 I’ll add one of my favorites: “Do or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda
    In marketing, I really think this applies to the continued efforts it takes to make relevant and engaging posts. You only fail by quitting or doing nothing. As long as you keep doing, you’re on the right path. Thanks again and I’ll be sharing as I like to with Buffer Love! 🙂

    • That’s an awesome one, Steve! Gotta love Yoda; he was one smart Jedi. 🙂

  • Lorraine

    Courtney, thanks for mentioning my piece on Helen Lansdowne.

    love this post on great historical marketing thinkers. You did a fantastic job distilling the wisdom of innovative thinkers–in marketing, botany and more–over the last 500 years!

    Each generation
    believes itself to be unique, but truth is, people–their psyches,
    motivations and behavior–remain the same through industrial
    revolutions, digital innovation et al.

    Among my favorite “great minds” in your post: Helen Gurley Brown on headlines—while she wasn’t
    the first to stress heds’ importance, she was key in _Cosmopolitan’s_ mastery
    of the attention-grabbing headline.

    Also terrific to see Cluetrain cited. With Wall Street’s ongoing co-opting of
    startups and digital media, its crucial to remember the humanism of this
    brilliant Manifesto.

    asked for “missing wisdom.” You’ve covered it all, but I might add words from the Dalai Lama: “Be kind whenever possible.
    It is always possible.” Marketing work should start from a place
    of empathy. Before planning your next “campaign” (note the war-related
    language!), put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Look for her pain
    points and try to resolve them. Stop thinking about the almighty product
    and start thinking about what you can do to help and support your
    customer–and not just when she’s ready to buy from you.

    I look forward to digging deeper with more of your “most famous marketers in history.”

    • This is such excellent advice and insight, Lorraine, thank you so much for stopping by and checking this one out! (And for turning us on to the brilliance of Helen Lansdowne!)

  • Cosmo Centre

    Me and my staffs will be happy to help you. Every task, an essay or a letter or a report is counted as one task, and we do send out task questions for people to practice on. I hope this helps, send us an email if you have any questions.

    IELTS in Trivandrum

  • km
  • Robin Turner

    These are not philosophies. They are mottoes, slogans – maybe even epigrams, but not philosophies. A philosophy is a system of ideas concerning fundamental principles. Epicureanism is a philosophy. Marxism is a philosophy. Confucianism is a philosophy. “Your culture is your brand” is not.

    • May be its not the philosophies, but these are the valuable thoughts by some great great leaders or persons. I suggest to see the good things inside not to dig out a lil fault. remember no one is perfect in this world

  • Gary Hamilton

    Solid Content but easy to read! You lived up to #39

  • These are great collection of ideas form great people! Ernest Shackleton’s ad really work because it cleverly addresses the man’s ego very well. Men always want to show off their masculinity especially during those times.

  • Really Meaningful and thoughtful Blog. Thanks Courtney Seiter, this would be helpful for everyone.

  • Jeremy Christopher

    Awesome stuff, thanks for the article.

  • Dow Satawiriya

    I like
    ISSUE A CHALLENGE because not only men, women also want to mark something in their life event
    EAT YOUR OWN DOG FOOD imagine that the company full of staff who are the big fan of product and service. it will be powerful