Startup Marketing Lessons from JFK


If you’re like me (without cable), maybe you watch your fair share of PBS and you’ve caught American Experience: JFK. In case you haven’t, you can actually watch the full documentary (Parts 1 & 2) online at

It’s a terrific film, and I highly recommend it — not just to get a better sense of one of America’s most compelling leaders and most fascinating times, but to reflect on the power of content and storytelling to establish connections and deliver an experience.

Like all politicians (and marketers), Kennedy knew the importance of connecting with his audience with the right message. But unlike most, he also had the vision to take full advantage of innovation and change. Even 50 years after his death, we remain captivated by the narrative that he began.

5 Important Startup Marketing Lessons from JFK

1) Get Out of the Building and Connect with Your Customers

American Experience: JFK, Part 1: 40:12

Kennedy Campaigning in 1946

One of the most interesting portions of the film is the section documenting Kennedy’s early political career in Part 1. It offers a portrait of a young man stepping into a role first reserved for his older brother, Joe (Joe Kennedy Sr.’s first-born), who died on a bombing mission in WWII. Following in his father’s footsteps and becoming the Kennedy standard-bearer was something no one was really sure Jack was capable of. When he dove into the race for the 11th Congressional district in Massachusetts he was 29 years old. Many of the Democratic party elders dismissed him as a rich boy who wasn’t waiting his turn. His opponents were more experienced, more established, and more well-known.

Kennedy responded by working twice as hard, going out of his way to speak with every parish club, veteran’s club, women’s club possible. He went to factories, pubs, he went house-to-house. In many Boston neighborhoods, that meant walking up and down triple-deckers. That was significant, because despite the outward perception of youth, vigor, and vitality that many remember him by, Kennedy had in fact been stricken with poor health for most of his life. Even before he was diagnosed with Addison’s disease he suffering constantly from severe chronic back pain that required him to wear a canvas-covered steel brace at nearly all times. By the end of a long day of campaigning from dawn to midnight, just holding himself upright was agony.

Every step a painful challenge, yet up and down the streets he went — climbing stairs over and over again, knocking on doors, hearing stories, telling his own, asking for votes.

He connected with people. On the day of the election he more than doubled the votes of the second-place challenger in the primary, and went on to handily win the heavily Democratic district in the general election.

2) Have a Sense of Urgency

American Experience: JFK, Part 1: 40:12

JFK Campaigning

Time and time again, Kennedy was advised to slow down and wait his turn. He was too young, too inexperienced. The country wasn’t ready for a Catholic president. He should set more groundwork, bide his time.

Kennedy never let up. He looked for opportunities, and he refused to let any chance or moment to go by. When he saw an opening to run for the White House in 1960, he jumped for it, hitting the road and unofficially campaigning as early as 1957.

According to writer Robert Caro, one woman at a campaign stop memorably said to Kennedy what so many were thinking, “young man, it’s too soon.” Without missing a beat he responded, “No, mam. It’s my time.” And the real secret to his success was that not only was he able to convince the American public it was his time, he was able to convince them that a vote for him was an acknowledgment that they also saw the change he saw coming, and they were ready for it to be their time, too.

Kennedy went on to shock party elders — including his main opponent, Lyndon B. Johnson — by securing the Democratic nomination. At the age of 43, he was one election away from becoming president.

3) Never Miss a Chance to Get Out in Front of a Story and Shape the Narrative

American Experience: JFK, Part 1: 1:34:30

Kennedy addressing the Greater Houston Ministerial Association

Despite confidence that he could beat sitting Vice President Richard Nixon in a general election, Kennedy knew he was still facing an uphill battle. Specifically, he was concerned about the “Catholic problem”. In 1957, a quarter of the population still said they would be unwilling to elect a Catholic as President.

As the election neared, many Protestant as well as Republican subgroups tried their best to bring concerns over Kennedy’s religion to the forefront and have them dominate the conversation. Rather than sit idly by and attempt to avoid the sensitive, hot-button issue, in a bold move that would be echoed almost 50 years later, Kennedy decided to tackle it head on. Against the better judgment of his advisors, he accepted an invitation to speak to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.

There he delivered a televised speech that had the potential to make or break his candidacy.

“So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again,” he began, “not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in.”

With one speech he was able to take control of and change the conversation. He shifted the focus and channeled the attention to a broader moral question. Is was no longer, “Do you really want a Catholic serving as your president?” but rather, “Do you really want your country to be a place where one quarter of its people are told they can’t be president the moment they’re baptized?”

4) Know Your Audience and Your Medium

American Experience: JFK, Part 1: 1:37:37

Kennedy and Nixon prepare for their first televised debate.

If there is one central, defining moment of the 1960 election, however, there’s no question what it is — the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history, broadcast live, across the nation.

For all the campaigning, all the issues, many believe the 1960 election in large part came down to how the two candidates performed on TV.

From the start of his political career, Kennedy had been taught how to maximize the medium, how to smile, address the camera. By comparison, Nixon came across as stiff and anxious. He fidgeted. He had trouble looking genuinely into the camera. To make matters worse, he had makeup that ran under the bright lights, giving him the look of what some would describe as a “sinister chipmunk.”

Polling afterwards would famously reveal that audiences who had listened in on the radio thought Nixon won the first debate. Audiences tuning in on television thought Kennedy won hands-down.

By being better prepared and better suited to convey his message across a wildly popular new medium, Kennedy was once again able to distinguish himself the candidate of the new now. He understood what the rest of America was beginning to understand — that, in his words, “The world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do.”

5) Above All Else, Deliver a Good Story


As he actively campaigned across the country, it became clear to Kennedy that, as the documentary puts it, what American voters craved was a good story. He knew he had all the elements of a good story in place, and that he didn’t need to go through the old party machinery to deliver it to the public — thanks to mass media he could share it with them directly, firsthand.

In 1960, Americans were anxious. They were worried about the Soviet Union, that the nation’s place as leader of the free world was slipping. Kennedy saw all this and responded by running on a narrative that “had it all” — high stakes, good vs. evil. The story Kennedy delivered was of America at the center of the most important turning point in history. The decision each American voter had was to stick to the old ways or stand up, take a new direction, and run toward brighter days ahead. That’s a powerful story. And in 1960 it helped make him President of the United States.


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