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.

Just What is Unique?

Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

“Sir, how does a business handle competition?”  I asked The Effective Detective, launching today’s discussion.

“An interesting query Watson, but unfortunately a tad vague. Can you perhaps make it a little more specific?” returned The Detective.

“Well, I guess the question is more how does one distinguish oneself from the competition when one is in a very similar business that provides similar results?” I re-asked the question, narrowing the focus as The Detective requested.

“Ah, a much better query Watson. I would surmise you ask because the conventional wisdom today is that you need a USP or Unique Selling Proposition to succeed,” The Detective began, pausing for me to confirm or deny the basis for the question.

“You surmise correctly sir.” I answered.

“Excellent Watson, I have been pondering that very question myself!” responded The Detective heartily.

“And, sir?” I prompted.

“Ah, elementary my dear Watson. There are actually two responses. One direct, one a little more indirect.

“The direct response is that there is some confusion as to what it is that actually must be unique.  From what I have observed, the most common belief is that your uniqueness is tied to your process. This is especially true in the service professions,  consulting/coaching in particular.

“The conventional wisdom is that you need some new and creative breakthrough to get the results your prospects desire. Maybe you have a new, never before done way to generate leads, or motivate people. If you have such a thing, congratulations, but my observations are that such unique breakthroughs are fleeting as people will rapidly reverse engineer and copy them. You can try and delay the inevitable with lawsuits and such; something that larger companies seem to take delight in doing, but that is horribly expensive and inefficient.

“The reality is that what makes your business unique is most likely you. I recently read that a large percentage of Tony Robbins franchisees don’t do all that well. That actually makes sense. They aren’t presenting anything unique, and in particular, they aren’t Tony Robbins! However, I suspect if you looked more deeply you would see that some of Tony Robbins’ disciples do quite well. Why? Because they take what he has given them to teach and made it their own. They have injected their own personalities into the material. They have their own presentation style. They may change the emphasis from one point to one they feel is more key to success for their particular client. The specifics don’t matter. What is unique is the service provider themselves; that is where the connection with the customer will be.

“Which leads us straight into the more indirect point. Simply put, if you can out-market the other providers in your space, you will win far more than you will lose. You will develop the relationship with the prospect, you will prove to them that you can solve their problem, and you will show yourself as a trusted partner. If you can do a better job of marketing than your competitors, if you can be in front of your prospects more often and with relevant content, then it is possible your USP could be simply that you were there for them when they needed you,” The Detective took a long breath as he concluded.

“You do need to deliver on your promises though, sir,” I added.

The Effective Detective raised an eyebrow. “I can always count on you to state the obvious, Watson.”

“Thank you, sir.”