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The (Really Ancient) Power of Good Branding

by Lily Bonney, Grip Limited / June 27, 2012

Note: This blog entry is available in English only.

The year is 323 BC. Alexander the Great, ruler of an empire which stretched from Europe to the Himalayas, is dead. His death is sudden and he has no established heir. Enter the Διάδοχοι – the Successors. These men were Alexander’s generals; loyal to him in life but ambitious in their claims to his empire following his death. After forty years, generals Ptolemy, Seleukos, Attalos and Antigonos manage to divided the land into four relatively stable domains, becoming kings in their own right.

These men won their kingdoms on the battlefield (a likely apocryphal tale from the ancient writer Diodorus records how, when questioned on his deathbed as to whom he intended to leave his empire, Alexander replied “toi kratistoi” – to the strongest.) But power won this way could just as easily be lost, meaning that each of the four leaders had to convince their newly-acquired subjects that their rule was legitimate – and therefore irrefutable. They achieved this, in part, through branding.

The very best contemporary brands are created when a company successfully taps into the human psychology. They encourage the consumer to form a set of positive associations with their product, through active promotion; product placement, marketing, advertising. These associations are all-powerful – they are what transform Coca-Cola from a simple sugary soft drink to a reminder of warm summer days with good friends, a shot at the big-time with a cover of a music track, the excitement of the festive season come December. A strong and consistent visual element feeds into the brand strength, making the product (and more importantly, the associations the consumer makes with it) memorable. An oft-quoted executive of Coca-Cola summed up the phenomenal power of the company’s brand when he stated that, “If Coca-Cola were to lose all of its production-related assets in a disaster, the company would survive. By contrast, if all consumers were to have a sudden lapse of memory and forget everything related to Coca-Cola, the company would go out of business.”

Similarly, if the citizens of the ancient world were to forget how and why it was that the Successors had come to reign, these kingships would not have lasted long.

Since they were not royals by blood, Alexander’s former generals undertook an awesome campaign of advertising – creating brands out of themselves to remind their citizens (through associations formed in response to carefully selected imagery) that they were indeed legitimate heirs to Alexander.

First on the agenda were visual graphics and product placement. In the absence of all modern technologies, they exploited the best available source of mass media – coinage. By crafting a carefully designed image on the obverse of coin currency, Alexander’s Successors ensured that a universally recognizable image – and all of the associations which accompanied it – was distributed throughout the ancient world and circulated on a daily basis. Genius.

The brand the Successors created was meticulously crafted using images that invoked not only the specter of Alexander, but sometimes of the old Gods themselves. For example, in 305 BC, shortly after Ptolemy assumed the royal title, he minted gold coins which depicted on one side Alexander brandishing a thunderbolt and on the other, the head of Ptolemy himself. In a masterful double stroke, Ptolemy sought to remind his subjects (through the associations they made upon seeing these images) not only that his power legitimately came from Alexander, but that Alexander himself – by holding the thunderbolt, the symbol of Zeus the all-father – derived his own kingship from the favor of the gods. A divine right to rule was unquestionable and unchallengeable. Ptolemy’s coins harnessed these associations – made by his citizens every time they saw his coins – to strengthen his claim to the kingship. The Ptolemaic dynasty would rule Egypt for the next three hundred years.

Demetrios Poliorketes (son of Antigonos) went one step further. In around 300 BC, his coins depicted him with the horns of a bull, which sprung anatomically from his head. Bull horns were a divine attribute. By using this image to propagate his brand, Demetrios was inviting his citizens to erase the line between living ruler and deity and recognize him as he was represented on his coinage – as King Demetrios the god. In the manner of Ptolemy, if the citizens of Demetrios’ kingdom were influenced to believe that divine forces stood behind his power, this branding would help to ensure the stability of his rule. The descendants of Demetrios held on to their kingship for the next one hundred and fifty years.

Two thousand years later, the fundamental principles behind brand-building remain intact: universally-recognized visuals, widespread exposure and consumers carefully guided toward a carefully crafted association. Combine them, and you have a brand fit for a king.

The original post came from The Big Orange Slide, the official blog of Grip Limited. The illustration was created by Nancy Ng, Art Director at Grip Limited.

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