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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Killer Expectations

by Cecelia Ottenweller

“Any progress on BB?” This was the email I found in my inbox as I toyed with my phone one recent evening. I was drinking some water at the time and almost choked.


I’d forgotten I’d promised a blog entry on the brand of Edward Teach, AKA Blackbead, the notorious pirate.

Interestingly, the email interrupted my evening plans to relax by hanging out in my jammies and watching The Pirate with Judy Garland and the oh-so-sexy Gene Kelly for the umpteen thousandth time.

You may not know this delightful little piece of celluloid fun; it’s a Cole Porter musical that suffered greatly during filming from emotional drama behind the scenes. The plot is fun, though: Garland plays Manuela, a dreamy young woman living with her aunt and uncle in a small town in the interior of an unnamed Caribbean island. The family was once well off, but thanks to her uncle’s gambling debts, it is necessary to marry sweet Manuela off to an older man: the chubby, mustachioed Don Pedro Vargas, who also happened to be the very wealthy town mayor.

Manuela consents, but she’s secretly, madly in love with—and perpetually fantasizing about—Mack the Black Macoco, a notorious pirate who sails the Caribbean, capturing prizes, burning towns, and ravishing young maidens. He’s everything her young heart wants: dashing, fearless, handsome, willing to do anything it takes to get what he wants…

So, what happens next in The Pirate and what does it have to do with Blackbeard’s brand? Well actually, absolutely everything. 

Engraving of Edward Teach, c1736
First off, who was Blackbeard?
Blackbeard’s pirate career lasted only three very short years, but in that time he gained a reputation that has lasted literally hundreds of years. This is amazing: his story takes place during the Golden Age of Piracy and his peers included the notorious and bloodthirsty Charles Vane; the dashing Calico Jack Rackham; and pirate viragos Anne Bonney and Mary Reed. Of that class, however, Blackbeard has the most lasting legacy.

According to Captain Charles Johnson, author of the 1724 best seller, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, Blackbeard’s real name was Edward Teach a mariner from Bristol, England. He shipped aboard a privateer during Queen Anne’s war against France and Spain, from 1701 - 1714.

Privateers were a type of licensed piracy. Back then, paid navies were small, so governments at war gave private ships a letter of marque licensing them to attack enemy’s vessels during wartime. They legally raided and plundered as opposed to being full-blown pirates who illegally raided and plundered. Truly, this was a very fine line.

Privateering was what Teach knew: His career choices at the end of the war were very limited for men with his skill set. He could join the navy or a merchant ship as just another crewman with little chance of advancement, or he could ship with someone who had, let’s say, a more “entrepreneurial vision” as a pirate and rapidly climb the corporate ladder. Teach was 34 year old man with ample ambition and by all accounts he was quite intelligent. His choice must have seemed very simple.

He at first sailed with pirate Captain Hornigold before taking command of one of the band’s prizes. Hornigold became an honest man, however, and took advantage of the Royal Pardon offered by Woodes Rogers, the British governor of Port Royal. This left Teach to his own devices and he took advantage of the opportunity to captain his own ship.

The Birth of the Blackbeard Brand
A pirate’s career was notoriously short and Teach must have recognized that fact when developing—to use modern parlance—his overall business strategy. If he was going to be successful, it had to happen fast. There wasn’t much time to build his brand and command his niche before he’d be bumped off his pedestal.

Teach was a very smart man and he seemed to have the heart of a master marketer: He instinctively knew that a well-developed brand would do the bulk of his work, so he deliberately created Blackbeard the Pirate, the fearsome son of Satan who sailed the Caribbean, taking what he wanted, leaving only death and destruction in his path.

According to Captain Johnson (who writes like he knew the man personally), Teach took advantage of what he had, namely a tall, muscular stature and a “… large quantity of hair which, like a frightful meteor, covered his whole face and frightened America more than any comet that has appeared there a long time.”

A common depiction of Blackbeard, wide-eyed and mad.
That massive beard became the centerpiece of Teach’s Blackbeard brand graphic standards. Here’s a more complete description of this new persona:
“This beard was black, which he suffered to grown of an extravagant length; as to breadth, it came up to his eyes. He was accustomed to twist it with ribbons, in small tails, after the manner of our ramilies wigs, and turn them about his ears. In time of action, he wore a sling over his shoulders with three brace of pistols hanging in holsters like bandoliers, and stuck lighted matches under his hat, which, appearing on each side of his face, his eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a figure, that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury, from hell, to look more frightful.”
Once created, Blackbeard then bolstered his brand by fueling rumors of his bloodthirsty nature. He plied this new persona at every possible opportunity. The more dramatic he appeared and behaved, the more wild the rumors.

Map of Ocracoke Inlet. 1775
This is important: there were far more successful pirates of his time in that they made oodles more money than Blackbeard. But, go ahead and ask the question: how many people did Blackbeard actually kill? Well, to tell the truth—outside of the battle at Ocracoke Inlet where he was finally done in—none. Blackbeard successfully leveraged this fearsome persona to achieve fast surrender by his targets with minimal damage to his assets.

Truly, of the pirates that who sailed during the Golden Age of Piracy, Blackbeard was the most skillful at leveraging his brand to get what he wanted with minimum effort. His name immediately communicated ruthlessness and it struck terror in the hearts of honest men throughout the Caribbean and English colonies. He literally became a legend in a very short period of time. And that legend paid off in spades: more often than not, captains quickly surrendered when they saw Blackbeard’s flag flying on the mast of an approaching ship. They reasoned it was better to do that than to suffer the torments rumored from previous conquests.

Let’s not be mistaken, however: even though he didn’t kill many people, this was not a nice guy. He burned ships and marooned people, and he was astoundingly atrocious in his marital relationships (he went to the altar fourteen times). Blackbeard did, however, shoot one of his sailors, Israel Hands, in the kneecap without provocation, claiming, “that if he did not now and then kill one of them, they would forget who he was.” So, let’s all agree he was somewhat unbalanced and leave it at that. (Incidentally, Hands made out decently in the end; of the men who were captured after Blackbeard was killed, Hands was one of two pirates who were acquitted while the rest hanged.)

Blackbeard's flag: A skeleton toasting Satan and stabbing a heart.
Here’s one of the best examples of how he successfully leveraged his notorious brand: With a gargantuan crew of nearly 300 deployed on his three ships—the Revenge, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and Adventure—Blackbeard blockaded the port town of Charleston. He easily captured ships coming into and out of the harbor with barely a shot fired; he simply hoisted his flag, showed his face surrounded by smoldering firecrackers tied to his beard, and everyone turned their hands up. He took several hostages during the blockade and threatened to hang them – men, women, and children—unless the town delivered a large chest full of medicines to his flagship. Frightened out of their wits, Charleston gave in to his demands and Blackbeard happily released his hostages after, of course, fleecing them for all they had, including clothing. They reportedly walked onto the quay in their underwear or were outright naked.

When a Good Brand Goes Bad…
Blackbeard’s fearsome brand, combined with his innate recklessness, ultimately did him in. If he had been a quieter sort, less interested in the limelight, less ambitious, he might have slipped away and led a quiet retirement with his fourteenth wife but no. Because he was “the notorious Blackbeard” he became a prime and visible target. He flaunted his cozy relationship with the Governor of North Carolina and
Capture of Blackbeard, 1718, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1920
set up a hangout on the Virginia border. Fed up with the pirate’s predations, Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood took it upon himself to place a one hundred English pound price on Blackbeard’s head, dead or alive…preferably dead.

Lieutenant Maynard of the British Royal Navy very quickly took chase after the bounty was set, cornering Blackbeard in Ocracoke Inlet on the shore of North Carolina on November 22nd, 1718. It took 25 saber and gunshot wounds to finally bring Blackbeard down. Maynard cut the head off and hung it from the yardarm of his sloop, the notorious black beard saturated and dripping with the pirate’s blood.

Move over Coke: Pirates have a Killer Brand
When he looked into the mirror and made the decision to capitalize on that full beard of black hair, Edward Teach created something much bigger than anything he could possibly have imagined in that moment. The Blackbeard brand is a timeless representative of not just ruthlessness and danger, but also boldness, daring, lawlessness, and adventure. (Basically, the male gender run amok.) In essence, Blackbeard’s legacy has become, in many ways, the establishment of the overall “pirate” brand.

How so? Let’s do the list:

1. Determine the most appropriate brand-positioning attribute:
Blackbeard set the standard for the proper pirate as a complete desperado, living totally outside the boundaries of acceptable society. His entire purpose in life was to take what he wanted by any means while laughing in the face of likely death. Here is an individual who does not value convention and who is not afraid of what his mother might think of his behavior.
2. Devise a distinctive way to articulate the brand position.
He is the devil incarnate, a larger than life inhuman demon risen from the depths of hell, with fireworks bursting from his hideous black beard and a mad piggy glint in his bulging eyes. Better hand over your ship/town/purse/girlfriend or he’ll haul your soul down to hell with him.
3. Develop a brand personality that customers can use to introduce the brand.
Blackbeard the pirate.
4. Establish identity standards
  • Bushy, nappy beard with ribbons, set a-flame with firecrackers
  • Brace of pistols crisscrossed over his chest
  • Full brocaded coat with many gold buttons, likely taken off some poor guy who gave it to him just before being stripped of all his goods and sent home in an empty ship
  • Loud bellowing laugh, emitted just before brandishing one of aforesaid pistols and a long curved saber while throwing someone’s girlfriend over his shoulder
  • Big cockaded hat. (He likely had it reblocked in Tortuga during his last weekend off.)
6. Consistent and unique execution of the branding program:
Cannon recovered from wreck of Queen Anne's Revenge
Throughout his brand building process, Edward Teach was very consistent, with no historical reports of his straying from his established standards. In fact, he frequently solidified the overall “pirate” brand position with very creative marketing efforts, including:
  • Marooning 17 men on a desert island
  • Deliberately running two of his ships ashore in order to divide his crew and run off with most of the loot
  • Marrying a 16 year old girl as his fourteenth wife
  • Being in cahoots with the governor of North Carolina and paying him ample bribes to support Blackbeard’s business operations
  • Taking a royal pardon as a “shelter” until he got a good rest, then went out pirating again
  • Having a notorious sunken pirate ship, which was then found hundreds of years later and became the cornerstone of a museum to Blackbeard’s legacy

Meanwhile, back in Hollywood…
So, let’s go back to The Pirate and Manuela’s impending nuptials to Don Pedro.

Gene Kelly plays Seraphim, the star of a traveling troop of actors. He happens to see the sweet Manuela when she’s traveling to pick up her wedding dress at port and it’s love/lust at first sight. He accidentally finds out about her passionate fantasies about Mack the Black Macoco and what happens next is pure deliciousness as only Hollywood can dish it out.

I won’t spoil the plot, but let’s just say Kelly successfully adopts all of the power of the “Pirate Brand” to get what he wants. There’s even a fabulous interpretive pirate dance, just in case you miss the point. And, the movie does a nice job of juxtaposing the brand against the real human that lies behind it… but that’s all I’ll say. You’ll just have to put on your jammies, make a batch of popcorn, and find out for yourself.


Cecelia Ottenweller is based in Houston and her resume reads like the mad wanderings of a moonstruck calf. A variety of adventures have prepared Cecelia for her current job, including a 7-year stint as on-air traffic announcer "Ann Parker" on Houston's news talk stations, and a career as a museum educator at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. She's parlayed this varied experience into a decade-long career as a business communication consultant and Creative Director for HexaGroup Creative in Houston, Texas. She loves travel and currently splits her time between her work as an independent consultant and storyteller in Houston, and gallivanting around the globe.