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Jim Marshall Took a Sip from the Tin Mug…

Felix Dzerzhinsky
Iron Felix
Felix Dzerzhinsky in 1919

Felix Dzerzhinsky was the first head of the Soviet secret police – the Cheka. Known for its brutal torture and mass executions,  the Cheka was a venomous appendage of a government gone mad.

As its director, “Iron Felix”, Dzerzhinsky was the most feared man in Russia following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

It is no surprise then that on the morning of August 23, 1991, as Communism was imploding like building #7 at the World Trade Center on 9/11, Dzerzhinsky’s statue in front of Lubyanka prison, was toppled off it’s pedestal and beaten with hammers and axes by Russian citizens as if the man himself were still alive in there.

I watched the live television coverage of Felix’s metaphorical beheading . It was, to one raised on a diet of Cold War propaganda, an astonishing event.

More surprising still, it was just a few months after the official sundering of the Soviet Union, that I found myself in Moscow  giving a speech to 200 Russian entrepreneurs on the use of customer surveys for advertising and PR (this may well have all of the entrepreneurs that existed in Russia at the time).

This was the first of 5 trips I made to Moscow in the early 90s and it was one of the most remarkable times of my life. Stories for my grandkids.

But from a marketing perspective, it was fascinating to see the American brand that was more sought after than any other during those electrifying years – the brand that most defined America to Russians turned lose to the free market.  

Make like you are a contestant on Jeopardy and write down your answer while we roll back the clock to….

Jim Marshall took a sip of coffee from the tin mug that had been the bottom half of a canteen in its former life.

It was so hot it burned his tongue and made his eyes water. He flung the rest of the coffee on to the ground and swore at Ricki Lee, the hot-tempered Chinese cook, who was currently holed up in the outhouse they had built at the construction site.

He pulled the old railroad watch his father had given him from the pocket of his worn leather vest and flipped it open.

Ten minutes to eight.

He walked over to the millrace , the channel of water he had diverted from the South Fork of the American River to the sawmill he was building in partnership with John Sutter.

He looked down into rushing water.  Something glittered.

He stepped into the frigid water that was running off of the neighboring snow-capped Sierras, bent over and plucked a golden nugget from the bottom of the channel.

It was January 24, 1848 and James Wilson Marshal had just discovered gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains – an event that launched the biggest gold rush in human history.

Marshall mounted his old mare and rode down the Sierra foothills to Sutter’s Fort, located in what is now downtown Sacramento.

California attracted many who had run from former wives and lives – before and after the Gold Rush. John Sutter was a poster boy for both. He had abandoned his wife and four children in Germany in 1834, as well as an angry group of creditors. Nevertheless, he had managed to talk Mariano Alvarado, the Mexican Governor of “Alta” California, into a comfy little land grant of 48,827 acres in 1841 in what is today California’s Central Valley.

Life in the old West had its rewards.

Sutter tested the nugget. When he became convinced that it was gold, he went back to the sawmill with Marshall and swore the workers there to secrecy.

Yeah, right.  Good luck with that one, John.

The actual event that started the “local” gold rush, was instigated by a San Francisco newspaperman named Sam Brannan.

Brannan had opened a store at Sutter’s Fort (which would later develop into the city of Sacramento).  When some of the workers from the sawmill paid for whiskey and some other goods at Brannan’s store in gold, he went to the site to verify the discovery.

Yep.  The real deal.

So what does Brannan do?

Start panning for gold?


He purchased every shovel in San Francisco and then ran through the streets of the city yelling, "Gold!  Gold from the American River."

The town emptied. Less than two dozen men were left in the city.

The price of mining supplies increased ten times and the income at Brannan store at Sutter’s Fort soon hit $150,000 a month (this was 1848!).  Sam Brannan became California’s first millionaire.

But Brannan wasn’t the only merchant to capitalize on the California gold rush.  One of them created a brand that remains a planetary icon today.

In 1853 a 24-year-old young man named Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco and opened up a dry goods store. His primary customers at the time were “retail” stores, located throughout Northern California that were selling goods to miners.  His business thrived and over the next 13 years, he expanded to new quarters four times.

In 1872, Levi received a letter from one Jacob Davis of Reno, Nevada. Davis had been one of Levi’s regular customers, buying bolts of cloth for use for his own business.

In the letter he told Levi about an interesting way he made pants for his customers; he placed metal rivets at the points of strain – pocket corners, and at the base of the button fly.

He did this to make the pants stronger for miners and others who toiled on the California – Nevada frontier.  He wanted to patent the idea but needed a partner to fund the project and get it off the ground.

No dummy, Levi; the two men became partners and a patent was issued to the two of them in 1873 for what would become the world famous 501 jeans.

I tell this story because I find the frontier beginnings of Levi Strauss a fascinating contrast to how the brand has grown.

It’s not just that Levi’s were the hottest thing going in Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union, look at how this world-class brand is being managed today.

This is a magnificent use of aesthetics to promote the brand.


If we can help you with surveys, positioning or any marketing need, pick up the phone or click the mouse (ontargetresearch.com).

I can’t dance like these kids, but I can make your marketing sing Halleluiah!

“In our work together for our current major client prospect, your research has proved to be “sine qua non” (Latin for ‘without which, nothing’), the essential ingredient. It is the precise and perfectly gathered data upon which our corporate positioning strategies for this client are being built.” Jackson Bain, President Bain and Associates, Inc.


Bruce Wiseman
Founder & CEO On Target Research.