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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sam—I Am No Wellington

To all Texans Sam Houston is known as General Sam. While trite, it is true to say that in 1836 he led a ragtag, fugitive band of Texican rebels against a massive Mexican army commanded by dictator General Santa Anna. That confrontation defined a proud people—Texans, be they of the nation or the state in the Union. And it very much engraved Houston into history.

In the 2004 film, The Alamo, Houston's strategy against the Mexican army is revealed. Whether or not he actually spoke these words is irrelevant, though the wish is there, the clip provides insight into Houston's genuine thoughtfulness of his actions guided by battlefield experience gained from an early age, as well as a "feel" for the land that must ally with his purpose.

Right after his victory for Texas independence, Houston was known to the new republic as Old Sam Jacinto. It underscored his place in Texas history and forever equated him with the Battle of San Jacinto. There is no escaping that aspect of his brand—it is the most enduring element to this day. But in terms of his vintage brand awareness, Sam Houston was much more complex.

Houston started out a Virginian. But his father died when he was but 14, and he moved to Tennessee with his mother and eight siblings. There the family began farming while the young Houston attended a nearby academy. His education was limited but he was an avid reader of classical literature with a fondness for the Iliad. In fact he knew it by heart.

Young Houston quickly came to the conclusion that he was no gentleman farmer like his older brother. Perhaps more accurately, he wasn't in the mood to be under his brother's boot. So at the age of 16, he lit out for the Tennessee hills. There he began a lifelong relationship with the Cherokee Nation. It was his second life, a sojourn with Indians that significantly shaped his outlook on life and his brand attributes. Like the Cherokee, Houston developed a spiritual relationship with the wilderness, as well as their planning and cunning by "carefully listening to and stalking his prey."

Houston became the adopted son of a tribal chief and given the name Colon-neh. The uninformed often state that Colon-neh is Cherokee for "Big Drunk." But that would be a no. While Houston did have a bout with heavy drinking, he eventually overcame the problem. In truth, Colon-neh translates to "The Raven." Now here's the tricky part—research to date reveals no particular reason why it was chosen for Houston. Although, a hint may be provided by Cherokee culture. Depending on the specific legend, a Raven can either be good or not so good. In any event, the Raven is cunning, clever, and in some instances loud. Houston, by the way, was considered quite an orator.

Cunning and determination are differentiators Houston shared with another great brand—Hannibal.  Like that ancient general, Houston faced very uneven odds against Mexico, and also like Hannibal, Houston first rode into battle at a young age. It was the War of 1812 and Houston was recognized for his abilities to command. He led several charges during the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Wounded from an arrow, as well as from bullets to the arm and shoulder, Houston forced a young lieutenant at sword point to pull the arrow out of his leg in the midst of the battle. Andrew Jackson witnessed the event and was impressed by Houston's courage and determination, and it sparked lifelong friendship. 

As Indian ambassador, Houston appeared in
Washington dressed in native garb.
Sam Houston lived many lives. He was a schoolteacher, a lawyer, a politician—no, that's not fair. He represented Tennessee in Congress and later was elected its governor. Just as notably, he became a leader of the Indian tribes of what is now the Oklahoma-Arkansas border, and ultimately their ambassador to Washington D.C. But it was in Texas that he met his destiny as a commander, and as president. His loyalty to Texas further saw him as governor and a senator. 

In every way, Houston was The Raven. He was cunning for sure, an orator, and not unlike the Raven Mocker—a feared character in Cherokee legend—Houston was a creature of many lives. No one title suits him, except, perhaps, Colon-neh.

Therefore, submitted for your approval on the coming 175th anniversary of the City of Houston...

1. Determine the most appropriate brand-positioning attribute.

Houston offers a lot to work with and selecting one single attribute is a challenge. Clever, determined, and honorable, but most definitely he was unpredictable. Again, you couldn't really pin one thing on Houston.

2. Devise a distinctive way to articulate the brand position.

There are two quotes by Houston that together state his position well:
A leader is someone who helps improve the lives of other people or improve the system they live under. And,  I am aware that in presenting myself as the advocate of the Indians and their rights, I shall stand very much alone.
3. Develop a focused brand personality that customers can use to recommend or introduce your company to others.
In Cherokee legend, the Raven could provide service to man, and he could be a rogue—both descriptors of Houston. 
  Colon-neh—The Raven

4. Establish graphic standards. 

Houston often had the look of a frontiersman—predominantly dressed in the attire of or inspired by his red brethren, living his Colon-neh brand. That's how Texans prefer to remember him.

5. Consistently and uniquely execute the branding program.
Friend or foe, Houston believed in the honorable treatment of all. Of an ex-wife, he threatened death for any and all challengers to her reputation; he let Santa Anna live; and he refused to take an oath to the Confederacy, knowing all too well that secession would damage his beloved Texas.
Like his namesake, the City of Houston, Sam Houston was a survivor. He never fell into a template or an easy category. He continually reinvented himself while staying true to his moral compass. And it was that moral compass that led him to retirement, refusing to lead Texas into secession and destruction. Houston retired from public life when the Civil War broke out. He died in 1863, at the age of 70, never knowing the fate of his beloved Texas.

Under 21 at the outbreak of the War of 1812, Houston needed his mother's permission to join the army. She granted it and she gave her son two gifts: a gold ring and a musket. Inscribed inside the gold ring was the word "honor," because she said this one word should forever be a part of Sam Houston's life. He wore it until his death. According to his mother's own words over the gifts, son, take this musket and never disgrace it; for remember, I had rather all my sons should fill one honorable grave, than that one of them should turn his back to save his life. Go, and remember, too, that while the door of my cottage is open to brave men, it is eternally shut against cowards.
Perhaps the best epitaph for Houston is, to him her cottage door was never shut.

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