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Four PR & Marketing Lessons from the Roman Empire

July 28, 2016 Jeff Bradford

I just read a new history of ancient Rome, “SPQR” by Mary Beard (which I highly recommend), and realized that the things Rome did right and did wrong kind of parallel the things that marketers do right and wrong.

romulus and remus

If Rome, especially Roman emperors, had done more of the right things and less of the wrong ones, we might all be speaking Latin today. If PR and marketing pros took the time to learn from Rome’s successes and mistakes, people might be using a lot more of their products and services.

Want to conquer the market? Take these lessons from the sometimes spectacular, often sordid history of ancient Rome:

Meet basic needs first.

Roman emperors realized that they could do pretty much what they wanted as long as they kept Romans well-fed and entertained, i.e., the “bread and circuses” approach to governing, in which Romans were guaranteed a certain allotment of grain and a fairly regular diet of gladiatorial contests, mock battles and Christians being fed to lions.

Similarly, the savvy marketer will make sure that he addresses his customers’ basic informational needs before trying anything elaborate. For example, you are wasting your money on pay-per-click ads if your website is out of date. Efforts to build an effective social media program will fall flat if they are not founded on a solid public relations program. An informative and intuitive website is foundational to any digital marketing campaign. And a public relations program that raises awareness, establishes credibility and communicates the right message is the starting point for all marketing.

Meet people where they are.

When Romans conquered a country and added it to the empire, they did not try to impose

Roman ways on the conquered. They let them keep their religion (though they might add the emperor to the local pantheon), their customs, their holidays, their way of life – while simultaneously bestowing on them the many benefits of Roman citizenship. The only thing required was that the new citizens pay taxes to Rome (nobody ever escapes taxes) and that a portion of the male population serve in the Roman Army – to bring more countries into the empire.

The lesson here is pretty basic: spend a lot of effort getting to know your customer, what makes her tick, then show her how your product relates to the way she ticks – and helps her tick better, faster, more beautifully, etc. Don’t try to change her beliefs so they better fit what your product offers. Meet her where she is, on her turf, by showing how your product reinforces her beliefs.

Don’t forget existing customers.

There are many theories about why Rome fell, but one is that Roman leaders were too busy conquering other countries and expanding the empire to pay attention to what was happening at home. Several emperors rarely set foot in Rome throughout their entire reign.

Sometimes, a company makes this same mistake when the leadership focuses too much on winning new business instead of keeping existing customers. From a marketing standpoint, the biggest violation of this rule is offering new customers a better deal than existing customers have. It’s amazing how often this happens, actually.

 Have a great story.

Rome had not one, but two great creation myths. One was that the city was founded by two brothers, Romulus and Remus, who were children of a god and a virgin and were raised by wolves. (I mean, can you get any better than that? What a story.) The other story is that the city traces its roots back to one of the greatest cities in Greek literature, Troy, whereby Aeneas – the leader of a band of Trojan princes who escaped Greece’s sack of their city – founded Rome as a new home for his royal band.

Both of these stories reinforced Rome’s reputation as a country of godlike, strong, resourceful, clever, unrelenting and ruthless people who are destined for greatness.

Like Rome, great companies have a compelling story. Apple’s is that it was founded by a godlike, strong, resourceful, clever, unrelenting and ruthless man who bent the world to his will by selling people products they didn’t know they needed until Apple invented them – kind of like the godlike, strong, resourceful, clever, unrelenting and ruthless Romans who bestowed a new way of living, i.e., Roman citizenship, on people who didn’t know there was any other way to live.

Here are some others:

  • Turner Construction’s story is that its founder not only invented the reinforced concrete building and changed the world’s built environment, but did so because Mr. Turner believed deeply in quality, hard work and responsiveness to client needs.
  • First Tennessee Bank’s story is that it was founded during the Civil War and has been helping people overcome adversity ever since, including two World Wars, a yellow fever epidemic, the Great Depression and the Great Recession. It’s a story about strength and compassion.
  • The Bradford Group’s story is that we are a company founded by two strong, resourceful, creative and unrelenting people which evolved into a team that balances the drive to succeed with compassion, openness, humor and respect.

What’s your story?

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