Wednesday, March 18, 2015

To live and die by the sword

A portion of Gerome's 1872 painting "Pollice Verso"
The celebrated gladiator—all at once a brand of fighters considered barbarian, tough, fierce, but honorable. The very word conjures images and expectations. Gladiators served as entertainment to crowds all over the Roman Empire. A day at the games was like being live at the NFL, NHL, WWF, and FIFA all rolled into one—when there was an all out brawl. And the fans were just as, well, fanatical, which fueled the games and gladiators' existence for almost a thousand years. In every colonial city, every regional capital, and even in the frontier hamlets, fights were held in many forms. Spectacles included the execution of prisoners, title bouts between crowd favorites, and sometimes brave patricians acting as gladiators, wanting to hear the hordes cheer for them. As a staple of Roman entertainment, the greatest monument to gladiators and their games remains today with the Colosseum. But something so grand and so timeless started with something very small—the gladius.

The gladius is a sword, just a small handheld blade about the length of your arm. And the word is the root for "gladiator." Romans adapted the gladius from something they encountered when conquering ancient Hispania. But as Romans always had, they made it their own. Gladii were used to jab and slash in close quarter combat. Given the nature of Roman military tactics, meaning that soldiers wound up in a lot of hand-to-hand battles, the gladius became the weapon of issue for legions that spread across the whole of the ancient western world, from Hispania to Gaul to Sicily to the borders of Babylonia and to Egypt. So it should be no surprise that the gladiator would use such a blade, and for the gladiator, it was the symbol of who he was.

There's not a lot of alignment between historians on an origin story for the games. Livy, however, makes the best case and comes with more evidence. Like all things Roman, gladiator games were borrowed. In this case they came from an early Greek colonial peoples called the Campanians, although some think they go back further to the Etruscans. Nevertheless, Campanians kicked butt over Samnium, a competing region in Southern Italy, and celebrated in 310 BC with reenactments using live "performers." Also according to Livy, the first recorded Roman game occurred about fifty years later during what was called a munus—which is defined as sort of a commemorative obligation for a dead ancestor. In this case, the event took place during Rome's First Punic War with Carthage—there were three Punic Wars, but that is another story (see Hannibal kicked butt). This is around 264 or 265 BC. To honor his father having died in battle, a Roman had three-gladiator pairs fight to the death in a cattle market forum.

Classic gladiators depicted in a 2nd century mosaic.
The look and feel of those early combatants was very rudimentary, each man armed with only a sica and a small shield. But while the First Punic War may have given rise to Roman adaptations of the games, it was Hannibal's rampage through the Italian peninsula during the Second Punic War that gave the classic look we so easily identify as "gladiator." Again, Samnium comes into play. Samnium was one of the regions of southern Italy in which the people sided with Hannibal. Their warriors wore particular styled helmets and armor while carrying the gladius and rectangular shield. Their fighting style and armor became a standard for gladiators as we picture them—probably because when Rome "reclaimed" the area, many of the Samnites were sold into slavery, and consequently, into gladiator schools.

It was also during the Second Punic War that the games grew in size and spectacle. Let's face it, the Romans got their tails handed to them by Hannibal, so there were a lot of fallen Roman nobles who needed munera to honor them. Many of those munera events pitted fighters against each other. In one there were twenty-two pairs—some were volunteers, such as nobles or high-status non-Romans. Others were war prisoners, such as Samnites. Years later the munera games were lasting for days, and one went through 120 gladiators. It was also in this developmental period that game sponsorships evolved. Yep, event sponsorships way, way predate modern corporate sponsorships of sporting events. All of this took shape as the sun set on the "Republic" years of Rome—that is, the years when Julius Caesar was coming to power as an emperor. Such events were extravagantly expensive but, as modern marketers know, they are effective opportunities for self-promotion via exciting entertainment to a wide audience. The same held true in ancient Rome, perhaps even more so. Those "fans" were the target for politicians or others interested in public awareness of them or their enterprise.

Some of the entertainments offered at the games
Along with the evolution of the gladiators and associated events, a big business of training and ownership grew. Rome's military provided a deep well, supplying gladiator candidates. If soldier-prisoners weren't used for work in state mines or quarries, they were sold on the open market. But being sold into a gladiator school didn't mean automatic training. If one was deemed unworthy, then they became live targets for whatever need they could fulfill in the arenas. They may have just been fed to fierce beasts as entertainment before a title fight. For others, for prisoners of war, their surrender or capture and enslavement meant that their life was now worthless. But in the arena as a gladiator, they could redeem their honor.
Additional supplies of gladiators came from slaves condemned to the arena, to gladiator schools or games as punishment for crimes—essentially a method for state execution. Interestingly, however, poor Roman citizens, or even non-citizens might volunteer to join up. After all, gladiator school offered training, food, housing, and a shot at fame and fortune. You read that right, fame and fortune. 

Not unlike modern professional athletes, gladiators kept their prize money and any gifts they received, which could be significant. It's recorded that Tiberius paid some retired gladiators the equivalent of $500,000 each to return to the arena. Other emperors gave property. But all that came behind an oath "to endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword." Just to drive home a point, the average gladiator lifespan was almost non-existent. Few survived more than 10 fights or lived past the age of 30. Perhaps that is why at the start of the games, the words uttered by gladiators to the emperor or game promotoer were, "we who are about to die, salute you."

Even when the games evolved to where the outcome of combat did not include killing the losing gladiator, accidents happened; and to lose a good fighter could be expensive. Gladiators cost money to house, feed, train and transport. The managers of these gladiators didn't like losing really good ones. As the games evolved to a point where a gladiator would signal his defeat, instead of death he left the arena in disgrace ... until the next match. If a gladiator died from an afore mentioned accident, there were rules and regulations governing compensation. Even when the games demanded that the outcome of combat be death, it was the promoter of that event who had final word on the fate of a gladiator—somewhat, because as the games grew in popularity, so did the opinion of the crowds.

Promotional poster 
There is a scene in the 2000 film, Gladiator with Russell Crow. In it, Maximus (Crowe) defeated another gladiator and the decision to let him live or die was at hand. The crowd chanted, "kill ... kill!" Emperor Commodus, who actually backed the defeated gladiator, complied with the crow and gave the thumbs down, meaning death. Normally it would have been the fight promoter or even sponsor, but for the film and dramatic impact, it was Commodus. Regardless of whose thumb was signaling the action, rarely did a decision go against the crowd. However, equally representative was the fact that some gladiators really controlled the fandom of the crowds. If they fell behind a particular favorite, that favorite could do no wrong in the arena.

Much of our impressions about gladiators come from Hollywood. Watching cable shows like Spartacus or movies like Pompeii, the idea of pimping gladiators to Rome's more randy women of society is postulated. There is not a lot of evidence for this, but historian Thomas Weidermann addressed it in his work, Emperors and Gladiators:
Women as well as men found gladiatorial contests, and gladiators, attractive. Some much-quoted epigraphic evidence suggests that this attraction might be sexual: at Pompeii, the retarius Crescens was known as 'the netter of girls by night' and 'the girls' darling'. Thracians were a favourite symbol of manliness because much of their body was left visible to the audience. This obviously constituted a potential danger to the Roman male's control over his womenfolk. Augustus restricted women, other than the six Vestal Virgins, to watching gladiators from the rearmost rows of seats. It proved impossible to put a stop to stories about sexual associations between gladiators and women of the elite, even including empresses. The wife of Marcus Aurelius, Faustina, was suspected of having had affairs with gladiators; only this could explain why her son Commodus was so interested in the sport. ... Roman anxieties about the sexual attractions of gladiators are given expression by the fact that they are classified together with prostitutes in Roman legislation, and that grammatical texts associate the Latin word for the gladiator's trainer (lanista) with that for a pimp (leno). Like pimps and prostitutes, public performers such as actors and gladiators sold their bodies for the delectation of others, if only visually.
This doesn't really eliminate the possibility that clandestine sexual transgression by high-caste spectators and their heroes of the arena. But what it illustrates is the low regard for gladiators outside the context of the games. Thus a woman of status cavorting with a gladiator was very inappropriate, and as wildly wicked as Romans could be in private, their public personas were immensely important to them so if something like an affair with a gladiator got out—it was bad. Donald Kyle cited just such situation in his book, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome.
What was the youthful charm that so fired Eppia? What hooked her? What did she see in him to make her put up with being called "the gladiator's moll"? Her poppet, her Sergius, was no chicken, with a dud arm that prompted hope of early retirement. Besides his face looked a proper mess, helmet-scarred, a great wart on his nose, an unpleasant discharge always trickling from one eye. But he was a gladiator. That word makes the whole breed seem handsome, and made her prefer him to her children and country, her sister, her husband. Steel is what they fall in love with.
Apparently Miss Eppia was a senator's wife. She hooked up with Sergius, a gladiator, however he left her after they eloped and ran off to Egypt. She had abandoned her whole life and really her country for a failed affair.

What is fascinating is that as much as Rome loved its gladiators, they loathed them in society. The gladiators were segregated and despised; and, yet, they were so admired as illustrated by this quote from Cicero:
Gladiatorial game memorabilia:
Imagine buying these from
street vendors at the Colosseum.
"Even when [gladiators] have been felled, let alone when they are standing and fighting, they never disgrace themselves. And suppose a gladiator has been brought to the ground, when do you ever see one twist his neck away after he has been ordered to extend it for the death blow?"
Equally intriguing is that even for those in the empire who abhorred violence, and yes, they did exist, saw in gladiators certain virtues. Unconditional obedience to their master and to fate, and a steeled cool in the face of death—they held neither hope nor illusions of hope. In daily life, they met death face-to-face, and always at the pleasure of a crowd. The public saw brand attributes in the gladiator that were simultaneously redeeming qualities—courage, dignity and loyalty. So strong were these that while Roman society openly shunned the gladiator in public, secretly in the Roman heart beat the desire to be like the gladiator—the noble gladiator.

Therefore, submitted for your approval:
Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant

Monday, February 9, 2015

Scourge of God

Dread. That sums up the feeling of anyone who lay in the path of a Hun raiding party or in the wake of one, assuming you even survived the event. These were primarily a nomadic people who emerged from the Steppe of Russia—around the Volga River. Although they may have originally migrated from as far east as northern Asia. They were expert horsemen, archers and spearmen, almost a precursor to the Mongols. The entire Hun army was cavalry, so when they struck it was fast, violent and complete. They were the barbarians' barbarians—as BA as you could get. The British leadership commonly used the "Huns" to describe German soldiers during World War I. And why not—the Huns scared the bejeezuz out of Gauls and Goths. It's an understatement to say that Eastern and Western Roman Empires of the day were intimidated. In fact, Western Rome probably hadn't been as freaked out about an enemy since the days when Hannibal mercilessly violated Roman legions across the Italian peninsula. They had good reason.

Like Hannibal, the Huns had a leader with attributes unlike any of his Hun predicessors—and his name was Attila the Hun. When Attila rose to power, he brought his barbarian horde straight into the limelight of their day and established their brand as synonymous with vicious brutality. The name Attila the Hun is often invoked when someone speaks of savagery or cruelty. In fact, of the many, many barbarian rulers throughout history, Attila is the one remembered most.

Ancient historians record that Attila was mean, ruthless, unrelenting, and yet he could be remarkably sophisticated, diplomatic ... civilized. He ruled from 434 AD until his death in March 453. For nearly 20 years, he wrought havoc over a territory, some use the word empire but that is a sketchy term here, that spanned westward from modern day Kazakhstan to the Rhine River and from the Danube River to the Baltic Sea. He left ripples of impact on Turkish, German and Nordic cultures that are felt today. There was even a popular book among corporate executives during the 1970s and 1980s entitled, Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.

The discovery phase of the Attila brand begins with his name. Modern historians largely agree that Attila is not a true Hun name. It is likely a Germanic derivative, which is due to the fact that Attila spent most of his adult and reigning life in Northern Europe, about where the Gauls were hovering around in the 4th and 5th centuries, and where Attila is still revered today. But because so little of the Hunnic language survives it is difficult to conclude. And keep in mind that the record on Attila comes from Roman and Greek sources, basically the enemies of the Huns. Underscore that with the fact the sources weren't even first person accounts.

What we do know of Attila is that he was born to a noble family. Remember that the Huns were basically nomads, so considering him from a "royal" lineage would be a stretch. Luxury counted for nothing. In fact it is said Attila was born in a chariot somewhere along the Danube River. Nevertheless, Attila's father was related to previous kings—or at least something akin to tribal chieftains. Like the Mongols who would follow in about 600 years, the Huns were tough plainsmen. Raw horse meat was a primary protein source, as was mare's milk. And they were adaptive. They did not mind mixing it up with other races, tribes or cultures.

Without delving too deeply into Hun politics, the young Attila and his brother became wards of an uncle on the death of their father. Uncle Rugila became king for a time, and in that time Attila was sent to the Roman court. Being a child hostage in those days was a formal arrangement. Rome would take an opponents child and send one to the opponent's court. The why and how of these arrangements varied, but it was often a way for the two keep each other at bay. In the case of Attila, he wound up learning very well the strengths and weaknesses of Roman culture and military tactics. His strategy to later engage Rome developed during his years in court.

Ultimately, Rugila would die and Attila would ascend with his brother to the throne. Bleda, however, met with a quick and sudden death, leaving Attila sole ruler over the Huns. There are questions around Bleda's death—as often there are when siblings co-rule and one comes out ahead. But that is speculation. Attila was the big cheese, and the stage was now set for an empire to be won and history to be made.

Therefore, submitted for your approval...


1. Determine the most appropriate brand-positioning attribute.
Attila's life is almost a mirror of Genghis Khan. Both men lost fathers at young ages. Khan was enslaved and Attila was part of a hostage exchange between his uncle and Rome. Also like Khan, Attila was from a tough plains people. And both men likely caused the demise of their brother, with whom they would've had to share rule or compete to keep it. Interestingly, both believed in diplomacy. Attila made it a point to seek peace rather than engage in risky battles. As long as he profited from the peace, then no need for war.
Should war be necessary, however, mercy did not factor in. The enemy was to be subdued in every respect. Attila was a described as a “savage destroyer.” It was recorded that “the grass never grew on the spot where his horse had trod.” Roman historian Jordanes wrote that Attila was “a man born into the world to shake the nations.” And shake them he did. Attila led the Huns back and forth for more 20 years, invading, raiding, sacking and generally disrupting anyone in power.
The key words here are “savage and merciless.”
2. Devise a distinctive way to articulate the brand position.
Attila the Hun declared himself flagellum Dei, which translates to "scourge of God."
3. Develop a focused brand personality that customers can use to recommend or introduce your brand to others.
Attila's real Hunnic name is unknown to us. But we can derive that his impact on 5th century Europe was lasting since they gave him a name rooted in Germanic culture. He was feared and at the same time revered. He became the Hun of all Huns. Attila the Hun.
4. Establish graphic standards.
Part One: Blood is about as synonymous with Attila brand as anything else. What he looked like is controversy. Coming from the steppe, with roots in the far east, he's been described with decidedly Asiatic features. Others make him Norse-like. Some depictions make him look almost Mediterranean. His forces used the bow, the spear and rode on horseback. But common was that when you fought the Huns, blood was let whether you won or lost.
An ancient sword in the Vienna Museum, it is from the
Hungarian plains and supposedly Attila's  Sword of God
Part Two: The Sword of God. This has some fact and some legend. Attila has been depicted holding swords that range from a broadsword to a scimitar. Given the Hun origins, something close to a Chinese long sword is most likely. But more important is that the sword itself is supposed to have been a gift of God—found by a shepherd boy and presented to Attila. And by the way the Huns worshipped a single deity—if they bothered worshipping at all. Still, a Divine gift to the king meant a Divine purpose. And Attila took full advantage, using the symbolism to reinforce his right to lead.
5. Implement internal branding programs to reward employees for behaving in ways that are consistent with the brand personality
Below is an excerpt from the February 2012 article, "Nice Things to Say About Attila the Hun." It was written for Smithsonian.com by contributing writer Mike Dash.
 More compelling, perhaps, is the high regard that Attila always placed on loyalty. A constant feature of the diplomatic relations he maintained with both the Eastern and the Western portions of the Roman Empire was that any dissident Huns found in their territories should be returned to him. In 448, Attila showed himself ready to go to war against the Eastern Empire for failing to comply with one of these treaties and returning only five of the 17 Hun turncoats that the king demanded. (It is possible, that the other dozen fled; our sources indicate that the fate of those traitors unlucky enough to be surrendered to Attila was rarely pleasant. Two Hun princes whom the Romans handed over were instantly impaled.)
It would be wrong, of course, to portray Attila as some sort of beacon of enlightenment. He killed Bleda, his own brother, in order to unite the Hun empire and rule it alone. He was no patron of learning, and he did order massacres, putting entire monasteries to the sword. The Roman historian Priscus, who was part of an embassy that visited Attila on the Danube and who left the only eyewitness account that we have of the Hun king and his capital, saw regular explosions of rage. Still, it is difficult to know whether these storms of anger were genuine or simply displays intended to awe the ambassadors, and there are things to admire in the respect that Attila accorded Bleda’s widow—when Priscus encountered her, she held the post of governor of a Hun village.
Dash continues, revealing that Attila could be a very generous king.
The discovery of a rich fifth century Hun hoard in Pietrosa, Romania, strongly suggests that the Hun king permitted his subjects to enrich themselves, but it is to Priscus that we owe much of our evidence of Attila’s generosity. Surprised to be greeted in Greek by one “tribesman” he and his companions encountered on the Hungarian plain, Priscus questioned the man and discovered he had once been a Roman subject and had been captured when Attila sacked a city of the Danube. Freed from slavery by his Hun master, the Greek had elected to fight for the “Scythians” (as Priscus called the Huns), and now protested that “his new life was preferable to his old, complaining of the Empire’s heavy taxes, corrupt government, and the unfairness and cost of the legal system.” Attila, Priscus recorded, also employed two Roman secretaries, who served him out of loyalty rather than fear, and even had a Roman friend, Flavius Aëtius, who lived among the Huns as a hostage for several years. Aëtius used the military skills he learned from them to become a highly proficient horseman and archer, and, eventually, one of the leading generals of his day. 
Most surprising, perhaps, the Hun king was capable of mercy—or at least cool political calculation. When he uncovered a Roman plot against his life, Attila spared the would-be assassin from the hideous fate that would have awaited any other man. Instead, he sent the would-be assassin back to his paymasters in Constantinople, accompanied by note setting out in humiliating detail the discovery of the Roman scheme–and a demand for further tribute.
6. Consistently and uniquely execute the branding program.

Attila the Hun never forgot his roots. He was a Hun. Despite years of available leisure whilst a hostage in Rome, he never indulged. As a king, he never indulged—even when entertaining. The historian Priscus highlights this with the following:
Tables, large enough for three or four, or even more, to sit at, were placed next to the table of Attila, so that each could take of the food on the dishes without leaving his seat. The attendant of Attila entered first with a dish full of meat, and behind him came the other attendants with bread and viands, which they laid on the tables. A luxurious meal, served on silver plate, had been made ready for us and the barbarian guests, but Attila ate nothing but meat on a wooden trencher. In everything else, too, he showed himself temperate; his cup was of wood, while to the guests were given goblets of gold and silver. His dress, too, was quite simple, affecting only to be clean. The sword he carried at his side, the latchets of his Scythian shoes, the bridle of his horse were not adorned, like those of the other Scythians, with gold or gems or anything costly.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How Elvis Met Nixon Is How Branding Leads to Sales



Maybe you’ve heard the story. Maybe you’ve seen the photos. In case you haven’t, here’s the recap:

Forty-four years ago, early on the morning of December 21, 1970, Elvis Presley showed up, unannounced, at the gates of the White House to deliver a letter he had written to President Richard Nixon. Elvis wanted to meet with the President and he wanted the title and badge of Federal Agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Elvis got everything he asked for. By lunchtime. That day.

How did Elvis do it?

THE BRAND: By 1970, sixteen years into his show biz career, Elvis Presley had evolved into Elvis. The bejeweled, cape-wearing, “See See Rider” singing, Vegas-playing Elvis. Elvis was a brand that everybody recognized and many respected. When Elvis showed up at the door — even the door of the White House — the door was open.

THE ANGLE: Even if you’re well known, and even if you say “please,” you need a selling proposition, a unique brand attribute. Elvis had one: Elvis could relate to everyone. In his letter to President Nixon, Elvis wrote: The drug culture, the hippie elements …do not consider me as their enemy… I will help out by doing it my way through my communications with people of all ages.

THE ASK: Elvis didn’t beat around the bush. He asked specifically for what he wanted. When you don’t ask, you don’t get.

THE LIMITED TIME OFFER: When Elvis showed up at the White House gates four days before Christmas, the Nixon staff knew they had to move quickly. Elvis was a limited time offer. Better act now.

THE CLOSE: Elvis wasn’t going to leave the White House without a new badge. He knew better than to take “We’ll get back to you” for an answer. Elvis was persistent.

A brand built over time, a unique and well-timed offer and a clear call to action set the stage, and a well-prepared, confident salesman brought home the badge.

Elvis has left the White House

Editor's Note: The late 1960s and 70s were decades of a drug use invasion. Pot, acid, cocaine, and other drugs were woven into the very fabric of the hippie and peace movements, as well as into the subsequent disco age. Under then President Nixon, initiatives began in 1970 to curb the import, production and widespread use of illegal drugs. It became known as the War on Drugs, and everyone in American society was impacted in some way. 
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Paul Sage is a marketing consultant and writer, doing business as Sage Advice. Paul has directed marketing communications in both corporate and agency positions for major brands in telecommunications, banking, utilities and business services. Paul also teaches marketing to college students at The University of Phoenix. More of Paul's musings on marketing can be found at www.paulsagemarketing.com.