Gangster Expectations

NOTE: This entry was written for David Falloure’s Brands In History blog (

Expectations are funny, so I’m always amused when some local retailer proudly proclaims he or she will “Exceed your expectations!”  How does he know what my expectations are?

When you enter into a retail buying experience, many times your expectations are negative.  You expect to wait a long time.  You expect to be ignored.  You expect the sales person to have a crappy attitude.

If they exceed that expectation, it would only be by making you wait even longer than you thought you were going to wait.  Or by treating you even worse than you expected to be treated.

Since the primary purpose of branding is to create a focused expectation, we need to be aware that the brand expectations we generate are often negative.  Customers perceive us to be arrogant.  Or expensive.  Or hard to deal with.

And so it is with many historic figures.  Imagine that you have been freshly hired to handle public relations for the famed Chicago mobster Al Capone.  (Even though it has been 65 years since his death, many of us still have strong, and negative perceptions of him to this day.)

If Mr. Capone was to suddenly rise from the dead, is there anything we could do to help improve his image?

Well, in hindsight, that Valentine’s Day Massacre thing didn’t go over too well, so we might suggest a less violent way to settle our differences with Bugsy Moran’s top lieutenants.   And those messy restaurant scenes when innocent women and children are splattered with submachine gun fire – not easy to put positive spin on that.

Discretion is probably what we’re striving for here, Al.  Handle your disagreements in a less noticeable way.  Try to stay off the front page if at all possible.

Surprisingly, in Capone’s early years, he tried to gain social respectability by making donations to various charitable organizations, becoming known briefly as a modern day Robin Hood (stealing from the booze runners and giving to the less fortunate).  He made “contributions” to many politicians and elected officials, and attended their public functions until it became dangerous for him to do so.

But painting a picture of Al Capone as a public spirited, all-round good guy is probably too much of a reach for most people to accept.  There are all those “incidents” to explain.

Maybe we could find a way to make his tough guy image work for him.  Like Frank Perdue, for example.  “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.”  Or Dodge Trucks – they’re Ram Tough.  We could encourage him to buy some Dodge truck franchises and go on TV as the tough guy spokesperson.

Then whenever one of those little incidents come up, people would just say, “oh, that’s just tough guy Al being a little rambunctious.“

It’s conceivable that Al Capone, if he had been able to soften and shape his image to be a little more socially acceptable and a little less threatening, might not have become the Public Enemy Number One target of Eliot Ness and his Untouchables team.  After many years of all-out effort, they never convicted him of any crime you might associate with a vicious mobster of his stature.  Tax evasion – that’s what he went down for.

He was so menacing, they threw the book at him and only got a 12-year conviction. Not an extremely long sentence considering Capone’s violent track record.  If he had received a more reasonable sentence, (and not experienced a little syphilis problem in his later life) Capone might have served his prison time and returned to the family business without missing more than a step or two.

Too bad he didn’t have branding experts like us to help him out, huh?

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