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How A 240-Year-Old Brand Celebrates Its Birthday

Tomorrow is Veterans Day -- a celebration to honor America's veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good. We salute them all. But today belongs to the United States Marines, on the 240th birthday of the Corps. 

Marine Corps birthday celebrations have both a history and a tradition, with a cake-cutting ceremony that would put your usual event marketers to shame. For this, a commanding officer cuts the cake with a Mameluke, a scimitar-like sword. The first piece goes to the oldest Marine present, then to the youngest. During the annual birthday celebration, Order No. 47 is read, which says in part, “it is fitting that we who are Marines should commemorate the birthday of our corps by calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history.” 

This birthday presentation started Nov. 1, 1921, by order of the 13th Commandant, Gen. John A. LeJeune, as a reminder of the service of the Corps and its inception. It’s been celebrated by Marines this way for 94 years and is a traditional part of its “long and illustrious history.” It’s a truly emotional event, where loyalty and continuity reinforces the Marine Corps brand. 



Marines are proud of that history and our traditions. The Marine Corps tradition is part of the bedrock of this nation, and one of the constants that makes every American hopeful for the future. The Marine Corps’ voice is one of quiet power and reverence befitting an institution this country has looked to as its protector for more than two centuries. I didn’t write that last part -- it’s a quote from the Marine Corps Brand Vision, which is pretty much a kind of back-to-the-future vision of what the Corps is.

The Marine Corps motto -- “Semper Fidelis” (“Ever faithful” and John Philip Sousa’s official march of the Marines) -- was adopted in 1883. It replaced three traditional but unofficial slogans; Fortitudine (“with courage”), “Per Mare, Per Terram” (“By sea and by land,” which was appropriate since Marines were once known as “soldiers of the sea,”) and, “To the shores of Tripoli,” revised in 1848 to “from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. From a branding perspective, four tag lines isn’t a bad record for a brand that’s 240 years old, particularly when you consider that Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have each had about 30 tag lines in this century alone!

As history and tradition are a big part of the Marine Corps brand, many expressions that have become part of the American lexicon are related to the Marines. Words like “leatherneck,” “devil dogs,” “oorah,” “fire watch,” “jarhead,” and “SITFU.” If you have to look that last one up, you’re not a Marine! But the six words the Marines and the Marine brand are best known for are, “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.” 

A lot of credit goes to adman J. Walter Thompson for that. Mr. Thompson enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1864 so you might say there was some history there, too, because about 100 years later his company helped develop the Marine Corps into the elite brand it stands for today. It is, perhaps, the most-cited slogan of any of the U.S. military forces, and even appears on Madison Avenue’s Advertising Walk of Fame. 

But like all things Marine, it too has its roots in history. On March 20, 1779, Capt. William Jones of the Continental Marines placed a recruiting ad in The Providence Gazette, which read in part: "The Continental ship Providence, now lying at Boston, is bound on a short cruise, immediately; a few good men are wanted to make up her complement." If you’re looking for a celebrity endorsement regarding that Marine brand, it was George Washington who later commented: “It is infinitely better to have a few good men than many indifferent ones.”

Traditionally, but unofficially, Marines meet up on Nov. 10 to share a birthday meal or drink, with some celebrations a bit more expansive than others. Take, for example, chef and restaurateur John Besh, a Marine who served in Desert Storm. 

He and his fellow Marines found talking about real food more satisfying than eating their MREs (Meals Ready to Eat, which are self-contained, individual food rations Marines use in combat areas where cooking facilities are not available. Older Marines will know them as K-RATS and I can assure you haute cuisine they are not!).

His experience — and an adaptation to civilian life of small-unit Marine tactics — ultimately led to a large chain of 12 restaurants. And a coveted James Beard Award, and four cookbooks. Oh, and his small division, fire team, take-the-hill Marine training led to his setting up soup kitchens in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina when they were needed most. The leadership that is borne in every Marine led to the creation of the John Besh Foundation, which protects and preserve the culinary heritage and indigenous foods of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region through culinary scholarships and micro loans. Oorah!

As a tribute and tradition to the institution and a thanks to those still serving today, John hosts an annual Marine Corps birthday celebration at his restaurant, Lüke, in New Orleans. Last year nearly 1,700 celebrants showed up, further proof that Marines don’t fool around about how we celebrate things that are important to us! All Marines are welcome to eat and drink for free on the day the Corps was founded. Navy personnel are welcome, too, because, as I am fond of pointing out, the Marines are a Department of the Navy. The men’s department! 

So to the complement of those few good men, past and present, we say “Happy Birthday.” 

And, as is our traditional sign off, “Semper Fi.”

Editor’s note: The author served as 2nd Lt., Second Division, Battalion HQ, II Marine Expeditionary Force, 1968-70.

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