What have the Romans ever done for marketing?

In Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ film, a rag-tag bunch of pseudo-revolutionaries called The People’s Front of Judea asked the question: “What have the Romans ever done for us?” Apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, it turns out they gave us one more thing: a guide to being a great marketer.

The Romans were making use of communication platforms over 2,000 years ago through the exchange of papyrus rolls. The most famous man of letters was Cicero, whose writings and speeches rank among the most influential in European culture – or at least that what’s I was told my Latin teacher.

Cicero is also famous for saying: “If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings and speak my words.” If you examine this phrase you will see that this is beautiful guidance for marketers.

Let’s look at what Cicero says: “If you wish to persuade me.” Why exactly do you wish to persuade or influence anybody? Do you want them to change their behaviour or their attitude? What exactly are you motivating them to do?

While you’re trying to motivate them, Cicero says “you must”. This is totally unequivocal. As marketers, we must develop our persuasive arguments from the customer’s perspective. “You must think my thoughts” – see things from the customer’s perspective and understanding their point-of-view, not yours.

Getting outside our own head, breaking outside of our own perspectives and availability heuristics, is the fundamental challenge of marketing and the key attribute of success. And, in my view, the key insight into why a product fails after launch.

“Feel my feelings” is a very specific statement. What matters to our customers? What do they really care about, as opposed to what I think they care about? What are the habits that we are expecting to change? We must know what matters to them and what they are most concerned about.

The last phrase of Cicero’s axiom is possibly the most important. Are we using the words the customer uses and understands? He is echoed by the famous copywriter John Caples 20 centuries later: “First you need to enter the conversation going on in your prospect’s mind.”

Cicero’s urgings and John Caples’ maxim become more profound the more you think about them. Both tell us that if you want to get the attention of customers, you cannot force your message on them. You have to start by tapping into what the prospect was already thinking about.

Just like the power balance between plebeians and patricians of the Roman republic was eventually disrupted and turned into the Roman Empire, the tension between consumers and brands has been disrupted. The power balance is in the consumer’s favour now. And the echoes of Cicero’s exhortations are ringing down through the centuries – to us marketers.


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