The man with a cardboard box on his head
He’d been extra-cautious for months, regularly scanning the coastline for anything suspicious. So on that Friday evening he was quick to spot the coastguard vessel emerging through the darkness from the mainland. He could see its cargo of black-suited, armed guards onboard. He watched in silence through binoculars as those deadly troops fanned out across the white sand and disappeared into the dense tropical undergrowth. They were coming for him.
Within the hour, the guards had breached the two metre high fences that surrounded his estate on the private tropical island of Ambergis Caye, five miles off the coast of Belize. The next morning he woke to find his guard dogs dead, all of them poisoned. He’d had run-ins with the Belize police before, but this time he knew he was in real trouble.
“Under no circumstances am I going to willingly talk to the police in this country,” he later told an American journalist by telephone. “You can say I’m paranoid about it but they will kill me, there is no question. They’ve been trying to get me for months”.
He heard no more from the mysterious intruders until Sunday morning when he learned the terrible news that his neighbour, another American ex-pat also living the private tropical life, had been executed. The news spooked him. Perhaps he was next? Possibly, the execution was a case of mistaken identity and he was the real target.
On Sunday evening, they were back. This time they had his exact location. With barely seconds to spare, John McAfee looked around his room. There was nothing of use: water, a small spade, books, a cardboard box. His years at NASA had taught him to think efficiently, even in the midst of a terrible crisis. His training as a master yogi meant that he could channel his breathing to aid concentration. But what could he do?
Racing across the room, McAfee grabbed the box and spade and sprinted through the jungle to the beach. He could hear the voices of the police officers close by. He had only seconds. Digging furiously into the soft white sand he created a trench long enough for him to lie down inside. Taking a moment to align his breathing he placed the cardboard box onto his head and lay down horizontally in the trench. Using his arms and legs he covered his position with sand and refilled the trench. Within seconds he was gone: a tiny air hole the only evidence that a man hid securely, expertly, beneath.
The guards eventually left empty handed and John McAfee stood up, brushed off the sand and loped off into the jungle. Still safe. Still secure.
No, this is not my attempt to write a really bad adventure novel. Ten days ago, this actually happened and the man at the centre of this tale, John McAfee, really did escape into the night. (Although the police deny his version of events and suspect him of his neighbour’s murder.)
McAfee’s name might be familiar, but it’s not because he’s the hero of a series of spy novels. McAfee is the founder of McAfee Associates, one of the world’s first and most successful anti-virus companies. It was McAfee that created the first suite of software in the early 1990s to protect PCs against the growing threat from viruses. He became fabulously rich from selling his shares in the company after it went public.
That was nearly 20 years ago. The brand has continued to grow and most of us know it today for its antiviral properties and world class reputation for security. But all of those associations can be traced back to John McAfee and his very peculiar talents.
In the antiseptic world of strategic brand management, we often forget about the importance of founders. Most marketers will never create a brand, they will simply manage a pre-existing one. They will use research to assess the brand’s health, positioning to guide its strategy, and an annual marketing plan to come up with its tactics.
But brands aren’t born this way. They come from the fire of being forged by a founder. Brands flow through PowerPoint decks for marketers, but for founders they flow through the blood. They don’t use research, positioning or marketing to build brands - they invest their own identity and experiences into their company to create something special and different. Occasionally, they create something truly distinctive and these are the brands that we marketers get to manage in the years that follow.
Often founders eventually sell out, move on and continue to live their lives. In the case of John McAfee, what followed next were a series of increasingly unlikely projects in ever more exotic locations. But he remains inextricably linked with the brand that he created; both are bound by the same origins and the same DNA.
As he spends his nights alone in the jungle hiding from threats both real and imagined, John McAfee continues to prove perfectly consistent with the brand he created. However the story ends, McAfee the man is perfectly aligned with McAfee the brand: fast, efficient, secure.