- Brand Management: Samuel Clemens, Trademarks, and the Mark Twain Enterprise
Samuel L. Clemens died a rich man, leaving an estate of more than $600,000 in 1910 (about $14.8 million in 2014 dollars)—a success all the more remarkable in light of his many famous losses, both small (the Kaolatype swindle and Scott embezzlement) and large (the Paige compositor and the bankruptcy of publisher Charles L. Webster & Co.).1 His triumphs as Mark Twain, on the other hand, set him apart from authors like Herman Melville, with his famous 1851 lament to Nathaniel Hawthorne, “dollars damn me,” and E. C. Stedman, who complained at the 1886 annual dinner of the Typothetae of New York City: “We professional authors are looking for spoils, and we haven’t yet gotten our fair share. The publisher takes 60 per cent of the proceeds, gives 30 to the printer, and generously leaves the author 10. The only safe plan for us is to turn publisher like Mark Twain.”2 Turning publisher, however, was just one part of a larger strategy by which Clemens directed the Mark Twain business enterprise through what we would now call “brand management”: he carefully mined, deployed, and directed the commercial value of his products (especially his copyrighted works) and his reputation (which he saw as a business asset). His strategy took two main tacks. In one, known today as brand extension, he projected his professional identity as a humorous writer and speaker onto other commercial ventures, riding the wave of branded goods (and attendant marketing) fueled by America’s post-Civil War commercial and media expansions and assisted by new trademark laws beginning in 1870. Mark Twain’s Patent Scrap Book (patented 1873) and Mark Twain’s Library of Humor (1888), among other branded products and activities, belonged to this approach, which culminated in the copyright-management strategies of [End Page 27] the Mark Twain Company (1908). The other approach, by contrast, entailed distancing activities from his role as Mark Twain, mainly by spinning them off, as we would say today, under other labels, as with the anonymously serialized Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896) and the imprint of Charles L. Webster & Company (1884–1894), though occasionally by suppressing them altogether. While both tacks showed marketing savvy well ahead of his time, protecting his enterprises from unprofitable controversy and exploiting his name when worthwhile, they sometimes impeded one another. Just as he eventually claimed credit for Joan, so he had his hands all over Webster & Co., contributing not only to the departure of its overworked and ill namesake, but also to the demise that caused his thoroughly public humiliation during the depression following the Panic of 1893. Across both strategies and their mixed outcomes, however, the quests to expand his income and protect it from pirates and other profiteers proved the value of the Mark Twain brand.
I use the terms “brand” and “brand management” to invoke Mark Twain’s approach to economic activity, rather than as metaphors for reputation or synonyms for celebrity. Brands serve three distinct but interrelated information functions: denotation, by naming a good or service or image; differentiation, by distinguishing one from another; and connotation, by symbolizing a set of associated ideas.3 The branding process fuses these functions semiotically and creates the financial asset known as brand equity by converting intangible meanings into tangible value. Today, trademark registration recognizes and protects brand equity as a form of property, but these benefits came too late for Clemens to exploit. Brand names and trademarks exploded in the U.S. after Congress took action in 1870, near the start of his most productive years as Mark Twain, swelling tenfold between 1871 and 1875 (from 121 to 1138) and another tenfold by 1883.4 He did not lobby Congress on trademarks as he eventually did on copyrights, but he vigorously policed his brand from the 1870s on, challenging what he saw as trademark violations through lawsuits and public complaints.
Behind these efforts lay a conception of his writing and performances, and of the comic persona animating them, as commodities for sale. Early jobs that paid him by the piece—by the em, as...