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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Babylonian Mad Men

Marketing communications (marcom) remains a game of strategy, the winning approach incorporating the right mix of the right message, the right brand and the right audience, using whatever targeted tools are on hand at the moment of dissemination. Modern arsenals are loaded with digital channels of communication driven by micro-tracking of our every move, but way back in the day, it was word of mouth that was king. But how did ancients ignite the verbal firestorm, the chatter that would spread your message as far as the frontiers of your nation-state, or beyond?

I know. Can one really talk about “ancient marcom,” especially in comparison with the hyper-digital age? Yes. The foundations are the same—it’s the tools that evolve. And just as a matter of opinion, though well substantiated, every stride man has ever made began with a marketing pitch, an effort to convince someone of something—and that pitch didn’t have to be about commerce, but it was always about getting someone to buy-off on an idea. Always. So marcom was born, and some prehistoric version of Don Draper in bear skins began crafting that first message to persuade someone to engage in some activity: a trade, building a fire, going on a hunt, family or tribal politics, or military action—even sexuality. Oh yes, it could be said that sexuality was, and is, the primal driver of promo­tion and persuasion.

"And so marcom was born with that first message needing to be sent in order to persuade someone to engage in some activity..."

Early channels of communication started with something as simple as a face-to-face pitch grunted at the mouth of a cave, and then included public oration with animated-arm move­ments around the campfire. Beating rhythms on a hollow log ex­tended audience reach across valleys or along vast plains. Regard­less of however primitive intended exchanges may have been, their common purpose was to convince someone of something’s value, or to share a vision or objective with the family, the tribe, nearby tribes, perhaps even nomads. Civilization was evolving because of communication. Controlling fire was a great development, but it was the ability to relay an idea that fanned the flames of progress and established homo erectus as the species to contend with.

Along with man’s progression into organized communities—camps, hamlets, villages, towns, and then the inevitable metropolitan city-state—marcom evolved in parallel. Campfire tales evolved into heralds, standing at town centers to cry out news, official announcements, and, sometimes gossip. And this is where the Babylonians enter the picture, introducing the street barkers. 

Barkers are a simple concept. Pay someone willing to stand in public and yell out a message, repeatedly to passersby—whether it were public decrees by leadership, or a sale, or an event. During the rise of the Greco-Roman eras, barkers evolved into orators. Orators were actually trained in delivering messages with the objective of persuasion. Even when hired to regularly “broadcast” news at specific times of day in specific centers of the city, it was never done so with journalistic objectivity. Just like today, the message was not to be confused by the facts.

By the time of Julius Caesar, Rome had even introduced social media and innovated public relations. Romans were notorious for employing an ancient version of Twitter, which was the hiring professional “gossips” to spread the word on various subjects. These could be good or bad, but always juicy details—true or not—about politicians and policy, patrician celebrities, military leaders, or just something big coming, such as entertainment spectacles, gladiatorial combats, executions, or even market sales and particular product availability. Gossips worked the streets, eating establishments, social gatherings, the halls and anterooms of the Senate, etc. 

"Romans were notorious for employing an ancient version of Twitter."

Many gossips and her­alds mined their fodder from Julius Caesar, himself an adept public-relations hound. While on his Gallic conquests, he sent dispatches back to Rome, highlighting his exploits and victories, as well as providing a detailed accounting of the spoils of war, which he won for distribu­tion among Roman citizens, thus earning their admiration. Individually, these were exciting press releases from the front. Ultimately, they would be assembled in what is called, The Gallic War: Seven Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Caesar’s version of The Audacity of Hope. 

"Writing with a marcom purpose first appeared around 1800 BC."

Writing, however, did not originate with Rome. That honor goes back to ancient Persia—mainly within Babylonia, hovering around 2500 BC. But writing with a marcom purpose first appeared around 1800 BC in the form of a clay cone. While this artifact now resides in Paris’ Musée du Louvre, it was once passed around the citizens of Sippar, a town near ancient Babylonia. Its cuneiform inscription dates back to the time of King Hammurabi, the author of the famous Code of Hammurabi, which are decrees remarkably similar to the Ten Commandments, but predate the Commandments by 200-years. Nevertheless, the takeaway is that the “cone” was a keepsake, of sorts. It commemorated the Hammurabi’s building of city walls to protect Sippar during the first half of the 18th century BC.

It was almost a thousand years later when another Babylonian icon gave us more evidence of his culture’s marcom innovations. Cyrus the Great ruled over Neo-Babylonia, or more commonly called the vast Persian Empire, between 559 and 530 BC. To put this into perspective, it was during Cyrus’ time that tensions between Athens and Persia began, culminating in the Battle at Marathon, and later at Thermopylae, which made Sparta’s 300 so famous. And while Athens was somewhat irritated with Cyrus, the reality is that he was pretty tolerant leader—and considered a very progressive thinking one. We get this from the Cyrus Cylinder.

The Cyrus Cylinder is just that, a terracotta cylinder with a lot of cuneiform writing all over it. The author was a master at writing to fit. In just 45 lines of text, the content is reminiscent of either a State of the Union speech, or an annual report—perhaps both. Subject matter includes an in­troduction reviling Cyrus’ predecessor, while associating Cyrus with a popular deity, including a prayer on behalf of Cyrus. It further details Cyrus’s royal titles and genealogy, and his peaceful entry to Babylon. The author also commends Cyrus’s policy of restoring Babylon, and declares that Cyrus improved the lives of citizens, enabled the people to live in peace, repatriated displaced peoples, and restored temples and cult sanctuaries, as well as increased the offerings made to the gods. Finally, it lists and details the Babylonian public-works activi­ties ordered by Cyrus.

"Cyrus was extolling his brand in quite a sophisticated manner—this cylinder was essentially his value proposition to the people of Babylon." 

Cyrus was extolling his brand in quite a sophisticated manner—this cylinder was essentially his value proposition to the people of Babylon. No doubt that Cyrus the Great was a peach of a king, but the Cyrus Cylinder is a gem of propaganda. The British Museum, where the cylinder is housed, describes it as an artifact of Mesopotamian “propaganda that reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium BC, kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms.”

The Cyrus Cylinder also reveals another Babylonian marcom innovation, “sponsorships.” We think of corporate logos plastered all over stadiums and skyscrapers, but the whole idea was born out of Babylon. Sponsorships allowed kings to stencil their names on the public works they’d constructed—temples, bridges, gates, stat­ues or obelisks. Not just their names, mind you, but their deeds were carved or etched into stone, extolling their awesomeness. In effect, they put their stamp on something seen by everyone who either lived in their territory or visited it.

The modern evolution of sponsorships was already evident by the time of the Colosseum in Rome. Senators and other influencers purchases box seats at the arena—not unlike having season tickets and suites at today’s stadiums. They carved their name or message on the stone facing the center of the stadium so that citizens attending the games or event, would get a messaging “touch.” This tactic has not changed.

"But their deeds were literally carved     or etched into stone, praising their awesomeness."

Modern communicators like to think they are clever—espe­cially the gorilla marketers. But even then, the ancients were way ahead. Besides directly displaying their obvious charms to potential clients, prostitutes of the ancient world used a very clever chan­nel. The soles of their sandals were carved so they left an imprint that read, follow me on the ground as they walked. Talk about tracking your results.

Along one of the main roads in the ancient Greek port of Ephesus, there are well-worn cement blocks. In the lower corner of many of these pavers is the etching of a woman, presumably Aphro­dite. Beside her is an impression of a left foot, which supposedly tells one to look on the left side of the street. There are other images carved into the stone, but the according to guides, these stones are early adver­tisements, essentially saying that, “If you walk straight along this road, you will find women on the left side of the street. They will give you loving for a price.” In other words, this was an ad for a local brothel.

"Marks identifying a particular brothel engraved into paver stones denoted some level quality..."

Similar stones can be found in other ancient port cities. Marks identifying a particular brothel engraved into paver stones denoted some level quality, be­cause if the house could afford the stones or craftsmen to engrave them, then they must be of quality—or at least popularity. Very often, such marks were akin to logos, symbols used to convey identity. They were a referent for those unable to read or, at least, unfamiliar with the written language of the land that they were in. In the ancient world, logos were a quick conveyance of what something was or what one might have gotten out of it.

It's understandable to a degree that a persistent misconception is that logo and brand are synonymous. They are not. And for explanation sake, let's start with origins of the expression "branding." The term is taken from "firebrand"—using a red-hot stick or metal to burn a mark in something, including livestock. While most of us associate the latter with the American west, the Egyptians were doing it well before the Christian era. Regardless of whether you’re describing stockyards in Tanis or Tombstone, the idea is the same, and based on a unique or distinctive symbol burned into the flesh of horses, cattle, sheep or whatever. That symbol differentiates one person's livestock from another's. But that symbol, which could be interpreted as a logo, has absolutely zero value if you know nothing about it. The cow, and the resulting meat or breading stock, could be quality or questionable. The symbol is meaningless without something of perceived value or experience associated with it. And value—real or perceived—is where branding comes in. Indeed, that is what defines a brand.

"That symbol differentiates one person's livestock from another's. But that symbol, which could be interpreted as a logo, has absolutely zero value if you know nothing about it."

Branding is about reputation, and reputation is the brand—what a prospective buyer or even the receiver of a simple message expects from the seller or the message bearer. Word gets around when a merchant sells junk or treats customers poorly. We know (or should) which information sources are about fluff or intentional misdirection. Even in personal branding, there are those people whose opinions are trusted, and others less so. All of that equals what marcom professionals refer to as "expectation." Then as now, successful cultivation of expectation included the contemporary concept of "user experience," which is defined as a whole slew of things between a customer finding a merchant or service provider, to satisfaction after the sale. The essence of it all was the same as today, but especially crucial in the ancient world. The intended or desired public perception of one's brand depended on getting the word out—which meant using the channels of the day, including but not limited to gossips, orators, and clay cylinders—all firing up the Twitter of the ancient world, known as word of mouth.