Brilliant Marketing: Why Thomas Edison Was Light-Years Ahead of His Time

Ask the average American to name an inventor, and inevitably most will cite Thomas Edison. But did you know he had extraordinary skills as a marketer and brand manager? I recently watched the PBS film on Thomas Edison and was surprised by his brilliant marketing mind. Here are a few examples:

Brilliant Marketing: The Thomas Edison Brand

Ask the average American to name an inventor, and inevitably most will cite Thomas Edison. But did you know he had extraordinary skills as a marketer and brand manager? I recently watched the PBS film on Thomas Edison and was surprised by his brilliant marketing mind. Here are a few examples:

First, Edison branded everything with his name, his face, and his signature. He understood that he was himself the essence of the brand. And he promoted the name on every product and in every advertisement. He was one of the early adopters of the trademark concept, still nascent at the time. He was so successful at promoting his brand, that it became quite valuable. As a result, he spent time warding off unauthorized usage of his brand. When his son, Tom, sold his last name to a homeopathic medicine company, Thomas Edison senior paid his son to change his name to “Burton Willard”! How’s that for protecting your brand integrity?

Brilliant Marketing: The Thomas Edison Brand
Credit: © 123RF.com by nicku

A second example of his marketing prowess also caught my attention. A little context is required so bear with me. Edison invented the electric light, and in order for cities to electrify homes and streets, they needed power stations and power distribution. Edison was a proponent of Direct Current (DC) power that you see in a battery. One wire or terminal has 1.5 or 5 or 12 volts, and the other wire has 0v, and the electricity flows from the former to the latter. It is simple, and needs very little math to understand. The problem is that you cannot send it very far over wires. After a mile or two, the voltage drops to near zero. The power distribution solution is to use Alternating Current (AC) instead, such as the 110v AC we all have in our homes today. It can travel many miles, and the higher the voltage, the further you can send it with minimal loss in power. Edison didn’t invent AC, he preferred his DC, and instead of out-inventing his AC competitors (Westinghouse and Thomson-Houston) he attempted to out-market them!

As the sales for new power stations with cities were increasingly won by his competitors, because their solution was clearly superior, Edison determined that he needed to show the public just how dangerous AC was. He started a campaign to discredit his competitors. He wrote in a pamphlet “It is a matter of fact that any system employing high voltage jeopardizes life.” There were accounts suggesting that he electrocuted dogs and horses with AC to prove his point. But then he went one step further.

Edison had been a life-long opponent of capital punishment. But such was his zeal to defeat his competitors that he offered his expertise to New York State to help them shift from hanging to electrocution (with Westinghouse AC of course) because it would be more “humane”. You have to admire his understanding of brand attributes and his attempt to associate AC with death.

In the end, the campaign had no effect on his competitor’s success, and eventually Edison General Electric merged with Thomson-Houston and became General Electric. Welcome to marketing 130 years ago. Today’s marketers take note: Thomas Edison, brilliant inventor, brand manager and some-time campaign manager, was light-years ahead of his time.

Author: Kevin Joyce

Kevin Joyce is VP of strategy services for The Pedowitz Group. He's a marketing executive with 34 years of experience in high tech, in positions in engineering, marketing, and sales. In the past 16 years Mr. Joyce has worked with many companies on their revenue marketing and demand generation strategies. With a unique combination of marketing skills and sales experience he helps bridge the gap between sales and marketing.

Mr. Joyce has successfully launched numerous products and services as a Director of Product Marketing at Sequent, as a Director of Sales at IBM, as Vice President of Marketing at Unicru, and as CEO at Rubicon Marketing Group. He has been VP of Marketing Strategy with the Pedowitz Group for more than six years. He holds a BS in Engineering from the University of Limerick, Ireland and a MBA from the University of Portland. Connect with Kevin on LinkedIn or email him at kevin@pedowitzgroup.com. Download TPG’s new white paper: "TPG ONE: A New Approach to the Customer Journey."

5 thoughts on “Brilliant Marketing: Why Thomas Edison Was Light-Years Ahead of His Time”

  1. The article was just fine, but really, “Light Years Ahead of his time”? Can we please stop using light years incorrectly? A light year is a measure of distance not time. Would you have said Edison was “5.8 trillion miles ahead of his time”?

    1. What about Steinmetz? He was as important and innovative as either Edison or Tesla, yet is largely forgotten in comparison to their great fame.

  2. Edison. He pioneered hiring people smarter than you to develop technology as works for hire. I’d say he was a competent brand manager, but pretty much a dishonest so-and-so in his other endeavors. He also delayed widespread adoption of his technologies through his numerous fees, patents, lawsuits and “fake news” publicity stunts. Should he have given away his technology advances? Of course not. But he’s no hero of mine.

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