The Great Differentiator

Branding Lessons from America’s Second Generation
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James Monroe is not one of the most well-known presidents in the history of the United States. According to a 2014 study in Science magazine, only 30% of respondents could recall his name.

Some may know him when flashback-ing to when their history teachers spoke at length about the eponymous Monroe Doctrine (which was actually written by his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams). Fewer still will remember that he was the president while the United States entered into the so-called “Era of Good Feelings.”

Despite the general public’s relative unawareness of his presidency, though, many historians rank his presidency generally positively.

But, how can a figure who is unknown by over two-thirds of the American populace be ranked so highly? Surely there has to be substantial reasoning there.

A Quick Bio

Monroe has a few “lasts” attributed to his name. Born in 1758, this Founding Father was the last of that generation to be president (the next president, Adams, was a child when the American Revolution began). He was the last president from the so-called Virginia Dynasty — a name given to the four Virginians who made up 4/5 of those who served in that role. Finally, Monroe was the last president during the First Party System — the political party system that featured the Federalists and Republicans (or as historians call them, the Democratic-Republicans) as the major parties that competed nationally.

Monroe was appointed as Secretary of State in 1811. His task was to renegotiate treaties with France and Great Britain during a time when tensions were running high. He was successful with decreasing those tensions with France but was unsuccessful with Great Britain. A year later, the War of 1812 began.

It was the period after that war, however, that Monroe presided over.

The Era of Good Feelings (1815–1825), which directly followed the War of 1812’s conclusion, is marked by several characteristics. First, the war led to the collapse of the Federalist Party — and the First Party System along with it — leaving the Democratic-Republicans as the sole major party left. President Monroe, in an effort to further unify the country after the war, nominated people of various political persuasions to serve in his administration. In a sense, he tried to personify George Washington’s hope that the country would steer clear of partisan politics.

Though historians use the “Era of Good Feelings” label with great irony (given the underlying disputes about slavery and nationalism that existed), the period is notable as a point when the young country differentiated itself, finally, from Europe.

Quick Context

The first forty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the United States’ economy mirrored that of Europe. For all their talk of breaking away from the institutions and customs of the Old World, the Founders created a government rooted in old English law and dating back to the days of the Roman Republic. Similarly, the American economy relied heavily on trade with European kingdoms.

That started to change, however, on the eve of the War of 1812. During the war between Napoleonic France and Great Britain, the United States felt that their neutrality was not being respected. American cargo and sailors were frequently seized as contraband by these European navies. As a result, the United States Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807, which severed all maritime trade with France and Great Britain until such time when American neutrality was respected once again.

This was a bad move.

As a result of the Embargo Act, not only did Great Britain not cease its aggressive tactics against American ships; eventually, war broke out between the two countries. After peace was signed, the Era of Good Feelings commenced.

This era was not only marked by a united political force, however. The economy was brewing a new differentiator in the young country’s history.

The Era of Economic Nationalism

While it was not trading with the European powers, the United States was forced to turn inward. The “American System,” promoted by the likes of Henry Clay, was an economic plan that consisted of three parts:

  1. A central bank to foster commerce (the Second Bank of the United States was chartered in 1816).
  2. A protective tariff (to promote American industry).
  3. Investments in internal improvements, such as canals, railroads, highways, etc. (to develop profitable agriculture).

Though this plan had opponents — namely sectionalism who believed that these decisions were left best to the States — it harmonized different sectors of the economy and, for the first time in its history, allowed the United States to differentiate itself from the economies of the Old World.

In short, the United States finally found its own success when it moved to create a purely American system.

The StoryTether

Companies who do not rely on mimicking their competition find success on their own merit. Much like how these second-generation Americans found economic prosperity by creating a uniquely American System, firms like Apple and Five Guys Burgers and Fries have done the same in their competition with the likes of Microsoft and McDonald’s, respectively.

When it was simply a personal computer company, Apple was always playing earning a silver prize in its competition with Microsoft. That changed in 2001. Rather than playing the same game as their behemoth of a competitor, Apple transitioned from a personal computing company (which they still are) to a tech company that produced a variety of products. The iPod in 2001 was a game-changer. Apple became a unique company and was rewarded at the end of the decade when they finally beat Microsoft in sales.

Similarly, it’s no easy task to compete in the same market as McDonald’s and Burger King. The prices at those two fast-food giants are hard to beat. The quality of their food, though — as Jerry Murrel figured in 1986 — was easy to challenge. That’s where Five Guys, with their simplicity and the picnic-feel of their restaurants, decided to compete with the better-known restaurants. Aside from the low prices, people are drawn to the short wait times at McDonald’s. Five Guys isn’t afraid to tell their customers they may have to wait; but, that the wait will be worth it. Five Guys’ $830 million revenue in 2016 is nowhere close to the over $24 billion McDonald’s hauled in that same year, but the upstart Arlington-originated burger joint is certainly making a name for itself by not focusing on being just a “better McDonald’s.”

Much like the United States in the early national period, companies can only get by on mimicking their competitors for a while. There comes a point, though, where they must differentiate and be their own thing if they want to survive.

Companies that do innovate, much as the United States did after the War of 1812, not only prove that they can be different. They also prove that they have longevity.

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