Houdini, the self proclaimed “King of Cards”, was just another back street, sleight-of-hand magician until he met manager Martin Beck. Far more impressed by Houdini’s handcuffs than with his card tricks, Beck promptly booked him for a tour in Europe, and created a worldwide phenomenon.
Four key traits lock Houdini’s place in the marketing Hall of Fame:
1. Demonstration over assertion
While other acts made false, inflated claims, Houdini allowed the public to sample his shows before even buying a ticket. His escape at Scotland Yard amazed a hitherto disinterested London and secured a sell-out booking at the Alhambra Theatre for the next six months.
2. He added ‘largeness’ and an experience into his brand
Failure in any of his new stunts meant certain death, suspended high above the street or submerged underwater with time running out.
No hiding behind curtains for Houdini. He laid bare the life-and-death struggle of man against restraint, which made for a great story and great theatre.
3. He engaged his customers
Houdini also involved his audience. They joined him on stage, checked he was bound tight and were challenged to devise a contraption that might defeat him.
4. He mastered the media of his age.
The public proffered contraptions ranging from nailed packing crates to riveted boilers, from mailbags, to the belly of a whale washed ashore in Boston. This kept the story running for weeks as he staged pre-arranged ‘tests’ with the support of the press and newsreel film-makers – all tied in with sponsorship from local merchants.
When your brand becomes part of everyday language, you know you have arrived. Houdini is up there with Coke, Biro and Hoover, as a name to conjure with, unique, instantly recognised and forever memorable.