Marketing Lessons From Ancient Rome

ostia“Watson, I had the most interesting insight when visiting the former Roman port of Ostia Antica a few days ago,” began The Effective Detective, taking charge of our conversation at the start, as he has done a few times in the past.

“Former port, sir?” I asked, dreadfully ignorant of Roman and Italian history, I had no idea if Ostia Antica had become a former seaport in recent or ancient times.

“Ah, Watson, I see we need to work on your classical education,” The Detective jabbed at me, then continuing on before I could respond, “Ostia Antica was abandoned by the Romans some 1,500 years ago when the path of the river Tiber changed after some particularly bad flooding. Remarkably it has sat relatively undisturbed, and intact for centuries.”

“What caught my eye was one section of the town described as the Piazzale delle Corporazioni or Square of the Guilds. This was where the importers and exporters would ply their trade. Some of course advertising goods they had brought in, some buying goods to transport outside of Rome, and some advertising the transport of such goods. Nothing out of the ordinary you might say, being that Ostia was a port. There were two things that I found interesting and of course a lesson for today,” The Detective paused, obviously hoping I would inquire as to the content of the lesson. As always, I decided not to disappoint.

“So what was the lesson we could learn from the traders of 1,500 years ago?” I asked.

“As I said, two things that I found interesting. The first was the competition, ringing this square were 60 “booths” – for lack of a better name. Imagine slugging it out on a daily basis when your competition was not just in the same town, but physically right next to you trying to entice customers. Those merchants must have been able to express why they were better than the guy next to them with no hemming and hawing. Either you could make a concise and compelling case or your prospect moved over 15 feet to listen to another pitch. They had no choice but to be able to make their case in a matter of seconds, and make a compelling one at that. Today, how often do we hear people who expect you to listen to a message that goes on and on? Definitely something to be learned there.

“The second and even more interesting lesson was the other way that they marketed their products and services. With pictures! They knew that not all of their prospects would be literate, so they not only would spell out what they offered in Latin, but in mosaics inlaid in front of their booths. Of course they sometimes indulged in a small bit of exaggeration: showing their boats protected by Neptune himself or how they can overcome sea monsters, but I imagine like exaggerations today, such things were taken with a grain of salt by the prospective buyers. The point was they made sure that anyone coming into the square no matter what class or level they came from would understand what they offered. Simplicity of message!” The Detective concluded.

“A most fascinating history lesson, sir!” I exclaimed.

“And an exhausting one as well, Watson. It was quite the trek around Ostia. Let us continue our discussion at another time,” The Detective said, ending our conversation for the day.

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