Ancient Greek Lessons On Building Brands That Last

Feb 14, 2020

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What will billion-dollar companies look like in a thousand years? Will even their memories survive?

History has front-row seats to the creation and destruction of global superpowers. Today’s superpowers fight from boardrooms, not battlefields. They are Apple, Amazon, Samsung, Microsoft and plenty more. How can brands avoid the fatal mistakes that crippled history’s superpowers? What lessons are there for brands that want to stand the test of time?

Ancient Weapons of Mass Destruction

In the 5th century BC Sparta dominated Ancient Greece. It was a superpower. But Athens, the plucky underdog, was catching up fast. In a few decades, they had turned their isolated city-state into the mighty Athenian Empire.

The Athenian Empire and Spartan Allies, 5th Century BC
The sprawling Athenian Empire in yellow, Sparta and their allies in orange

Sparta watched Athens with growing concern. Who was this upstart threatening their supremacy?

The “father of scientific history” Thucydides records what happened next (HTML Link).

When revolts broke out in Sparta, Athens sent 4,000 soldiers to help. Yet Sparta dismissed the Athenian force upon arrival. Why? According to Thucydides, they rejected the Athenians out of fear their superpower status might be compromised. Sparta was worried Athens would betray them and revolt too. The offended Athenians withdrew their alliance with Sparta, ending the delicate peace and sparking the bloody Peloponnesian War.

Quote from Thucydides
Quote from Thucydides

The Peloponnesian War was the first time a global-scale superpower faced a real rival. What turned this rivalry into a nuclear-grade fallout? 

To understand Spartan & Athenian actions, we need to examine our primitive brains

Imagine you’re a caveman or cavewoman. You’re responsible for a young child and have to hunt and gather for survival with your spouse. You’re fiercely independent, and proud.

One day you encounter a tribe of twenty cavemen & women. Instead of going solo, they banded together. It’s twenty of them versus three of you. They take one deciding look at your family... and see free lunch. Goodbye resources. And if they think you’re a threat (which they probably will), goodbye to you too.

Bigger tribes always beat independent humans, so they became totally necessary. All our ancestors are survivors. Their tribal nature is hardwired into our brains. 

When seen through this context, Sparta’s violent reaction to their new rival is nothing more than a survival mechanism: One tribe worried for their own existence, threatened by another.

The data confirms the Peloponnesian War isn’t a one-off anomaly. Harvard’s analysis of the last 500 years found 16 cases of a rising power threatening a ruling power. 16 times two tribes clashed. 12 ended in war.

Credit: Graham Allison

Graham Allison has named this phenomenon Thucydides’s Trap. When one superpower is threatened by a rival, the odds heavily favour war.

You don’t need to be a historian to see the lessons: Rival tribes fight more than they play nice. Because our tribal natures never truly left, the same struggle plays out time and again today. Only it’s fought in a brand new setting: The battle for customers.

Thucydides’s Trap For Brands

Samsung mobile advert mocking Apple
Samsung’s advert mocking Apple: “The stylus will definitely catch on…”

Tribal warfare is fought between companies all over the world. Executives command armies of employees, deploying them in campaigns across land, the digital realm, and even your own home.

Consider Apple: Makers of the luxury phone. Every mobile giant wants a piece of their market share... and none more so than Samsung:

2011: Samsung mocks Apple fans queueing overnight for iPhones. “Why don’t you guys just get 4G phones?”

2017: Samsung attacks the iPhone's small storage, not being waterproof and lacking... a stylus.

2018: A goofy Apple store clerk struggles to explain why iPhones lack “critical” features the Galaxy S9 has. Like the micro SD card. Side note: When was the last time you asked for a micro SD card on your phone?

The cult of Cupertino is no better. Apple released dozens of “I’m a Mac vs. I’m a PC” adverts shaming an awkward Microsoft computer next to the slick and simple Mac. And before you think Microsoft is above it all…

Apple vs Microsoft advertising video
“I’m a Mac. I’m a PC.” Guess which is which…

Why do consumer tech brands continue throwing millions into ads attacking their competitors? Hasn’t history shown us that superpower-scale rivalries end badly?

Perhaps not.

A Case For Competition

Eleanor Roosevelt said “small minds discuss people.” At a glance, these big tech adverts appear exactly that: Giant companies with small minds, squabbling like a family around the dinner table, pointing out petty problems.

Which is exactly the point.

What happens when we buy a product? We invest in the company’s ecosystem. We become part of their tribe. Sprinkle in a healthy dose of confirmation bias (seeing things that support our choices as “right”), and suddenly the tribe’s products are better than before, even though nothing actually changed.

Buying something doesn’t just make the product appear better - competing products seem worse too.

Canva? Our brains create a subconscious “Us vs. Them” divide between our choice of product, and any competition.

In the Peloponnesian War, I imagine it was nearly impossible for Spartans to defect to the Athenian side. Yet consumers switch sides every day: they have more options than ever and brand loyalty is at an all time low. This fickle climate makes it harder than ever for brands to keep consumers coming back.

So how can brands build loyalty? By stoking the tribal flames of rivalry.

Retail industry digital advertising spend statistics
The retail industry’s digital fight to acquire consumers keeps on escalating. Source: eMarketer

According to Social Identity Theory, a person chooses groups according to how group membership reflects on themselves. To some extent, that means not buying an iPhone purely for the functionality but to feel like an Apple person.

I own a Pixel 2. After speaking to friends about phone choices, many iPhone users are baffled. “Why would you choose an Android?” Of course, there’s every chance I feel the same towards them. Once you’re in Apple’s tribe you can’t be in the Android tribe too. If brands have their way, everyone has to pick sides. And hopefully it’s theirs.

Football fans rivalry
Football rivalry: Us vs. Them

To see our competitive genes in action, look at sports. If you’ve ever attended a match (especially if your team’s playing), you’ll know it’s never a case of only supporting your team. You have to attack your opponents too. That’s how rivalries work.

In true Us vs. Them fashion, sports fans have been found to perceive behaviour of rival teams more negatively than usual. They also reported a higher likelihood of watching or attending games against a rival than versus non-rivals.

If sports fans perceive their own “brand” as better and rivals as worse, it could suggest consumers will act the same too. If you’ve subscribed to Harry’s and suddenly see Gillette razors advertised, you’ve already made your choice. Your loyalty to Harry's grows, while subconsciously competitors are put down.

Our tribal brains are programmed for conflict, and brands know it. Attacking ad campaigns force consumers to pick sides, deepening the connection with their choice, and increasing animosity towards the other.

Global superpowers are companies. The Greeks fought for territory. Billion-dollar companies fight for market share. But even in business, you can’t escape the brutality of warfare.

Toxic Truths

Rivalries have nasty side-effects.

Remember confirmation bias that makes your choices seem better? Rivalries bring up another mental bias: the sunk cost fallacy. Once we’ve invested resources into something it appears much harder to move away. Take Apple’s ecosystem. Once you have your Mac, iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch all hooked up... is it even possible to leave? Maybe. But you’ll have to Google it.

Credit: Mehul Patel

While this all plays out in our heads, it has real effects on the brands we choose. Once we indulge a rivalry, we declare war on a brand. And there’s no exiting this arms race.

Just like real wars, rivalries can be violent. In sports, rivalries increase the odds of unethical behaviour. Local derbies are notorious for their “football firms”, who celebrate matches with bloody, bruising brawls.

Green Street football firms

The football firms in Green Street. Do they look friendly to you?

Are businesses above this dirty behaviour? Perhaps British Airways can tell us. In the early 90s, BA sales reps cold called Virgin customers, offering everything from free tickets if they swapped to BA, to fake reasons why their Virgin flight was delayed. In the end, they paid Richard Branson and Virgin Airways nearly $1 million after their smear campaign was unearthed.

Or how about politics? In the 2016 election, Trump and Clinton preferred to personally attack their rival at speeches instead of focusing on their own strong policies. (Trump: Clinton “hasn’t made an honest dollar in her entire life.” Clinton: “What kind of a genius loses a billion dollars in a single year?”) Once again, it’s Us vs. Them.

Perhaps most importantly, rivalry looms darkest in our personal lives. Holding grudges against others rarely ends well. It leaves us more emotionally crippled than before, and could shorten our lifespan.

So while rivalries can reinforce consumer loyalty, they also create dividing lines and have a tendency to bring out the worst in us. 

What should we do? In my opinion, the world has enough division already. I propose a different solution for brands to be remembered: Embrace what makes you unique.

Exactly like Ancient Greece did.

Escaping The Trap

Ancient Greece remains at the forefront of modern society. Athens is remembered for their war with Sparta, yet this is almost an anomaly compared to their country’s decorated history. From philosophy to mathematics, science to sports, Greece’s fingerprints are all over the modern world:

Ancient Greek and modern democracy
Democracy (from Greek "dēmokratiā”): Born in Athens, still strong today

We remember the Peloponnesian War’s thought provoking lessons on the rise and fall of civilizations. We remember Ancient Greece because their minds were truly unique:

No other civilization at the time had such a lasting legacy. That’s why these pioneers are still relevant for us today, for what they achieved and represent: Greece’s success came from being wholeheartedly unique in their thinking.

The Big Idea

Batman Begins League of Shadows
Credit: Batman Begins

In the film Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is tested by Ra’s Al Ghul to join the League of Shadows, a group dedicated to serving justice through organised violence. As soon-to-be Batman stalks through ranks of ninjas, Ra’s lunges at him from the darkness, attacking him with both a blade and a phrase:

You must become an idea: Batman must stand for something

Ra’s Al Ghul Quote: You must become an idea
Ra’s Al Ghul Quote: You must become an idea

Just as the League of Shadows strikes fear into their enemies’ hearts, Gotham’s criminals lose sleep at night, terrified of Batman. Why? It’s not only because he kicks their ass. Batman is a symbol of justice in a miserable world. When the bat signal is turned on, we’re not only getting a man in spandex running into fights (although that can be worth it alone sometimes). We’re getting something more. We’re given the idea of hope.

The bat signal: More than a bright light

The bat signal
The bat signal

Batman stands for something. He’s more than the sum of his parts. He’s an idea. And because of that, we remember him.

Ancient Greece represents the pinnacle of ancient achievement. They have become an ideal to aspire to. In the same way, brands must seek to do the same. 

We buy into the idea behind something just as much as the product itself. The idea can (and should) influence the product. Countless car companies frantically attempt to claim market share from Tesla in the Electric Vehicle market. But Tesla isn’t a car company. It’s an energy company. Their big idea? Accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. The most effective vehicle for that goal simply happens to be... a vehicle.

And of course, the idea must be uniquely yours. Consumers smell deception from a mile off.

Embracing Our Uniqueness: A Case Study

Imagine seeing a bear at a circus. Not that interesting, right? The same is probably true if you saw a man on a unicycle. But put that bear on a unicycle... and suddenly we’re hooked. We’re drawn to unusual combinations - they break our boredom with something fresh and strange.

In the world of personal branding, unusual combinations stand out for all the right reasons. I’ve spent the past two years growing the personal brands of founders and executives. To illustrate how embracing uniqueness can be a competitive advantage, I'll share how we applied this philosophy to a client, creating success by positioning them around what uniquely makes up their brand.

Bear on a tricycle
An elusive bear on an (almost) unicycle

It’s tough getting technologists and businesspeople to work together. Technologists love their science, but usually don’t care how to make money. On the other hand, businesspeople rarely care to understand the tech, yet wish that technologists had made it work yesterday! 

How do you align these stakeholders to not just cooperate, but create brand new value together? With a unique skill set.

This is the perspective Laks Srinivasan brings to the table. As Chief Operating Officer of Opera Solutions for 10 years, Laks is well versed in bridging gaps between clients that aren’t tech savvy and their burning business goals. He uses technical and business expertise to implement Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence (ML / AI) solutions that have both man AND machine in mind.

Both Laks’s value doesn’t come from one discipline alone. It’s his intersectional skill set that makes him unique, and lets him create his special kind of result.

Firstly, Laks has 15+ years experience working directly with AI & ML scientists. He was a pioneer in the field, working with ML scientists back in 2003 when AI was known as “advanced analytics”. Laks might not hold a PhD in the subject, but he has worked with specialists to build dozens of solutions and systems together. 

Laks Srinivasan unique brand 1
ML / AI Experience: The first component of Laks’s brand

Note that at this point, Laks’s skill set hasn’t even touched the world of business. We’ll come to that later. The first part of his brand’s value is a deep understanding of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

But Laks isn’t only skilled in ML / AI. Stopping here leaves no difference between a scientist who grasps the theory behind an idea, and someone who actually understands how the concept works. That’s where the second part of his brand comes in: Laks doesn’t just work with scientists - he’s a technologist himself. 

After getting his first handheld computer in 9th grade, Laks's obsession has remained the same: Understanding the process behind technology. This rarely-satisfied curiosity to learn how technology works led him to spend several years working early on as a developer.

Combined with his ML / AI background, Laks can view complex technology through an engineer’s lens, understanding exactly how it works. 

Laks Srinivasan unique brand 2
Technologist + ML / AI Veteran: Starting to niche down

The ML / AI industry faces a problematic split. There’s 2 worlds trying to use their tech: Digitally native companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google etc.), and everyone else trying to catch up. Compare Ford trying to put software into machinery with Tesla putting software on wheels. There’s a giant knowledge gap. The average lagging enterprise might have an AI programme they technically understand... yet they lack a playbook for real business success.

It’s right at this critical need where Laks’s unique value shines through.

Laks isn’t just a technologist and ML / AI veteran. He's worked on dozens of real world ML / AI business applications too. This third pillar of his brand means that in a crowded market filled with hype, Laks has cultivated a superpower: applying AI & ML solutions for concrete, measurable results.

This advantage was born from Laks’s previous startup Expense Advisor, where they used algorithms to help consumers optimise expenses. In Laks’s words, this experience “opened up a whole other world for me with the ML / AI scientist community.” He was no longer doing R&D, but actually putting ideas into production.

Without his business acumen, Laks might not know how to distinguish hyped science projects from real, profitable pursuits. But with this third brand pillar, Laks brings the perspective of a scientist, an engineer and a businessman

By embracing what makes him unique, Laks now offers the “bear on a unicycle” value proposition of building an AI / ML product, understanding it technically, and translating that product into real business value.

Laks Srinivasan unique brand 3
Embracing uniqueness

Stronger Together

“The wise humble themselves—

and because of their humility,

they are worthy of praise.” - Tao Te Ching

When Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War, Greece was the real loser. Civil war became common. Typical small-scale skirmishes morphed into horrific conflicts that levelled entire cities. Once mighty Greece was divided and broken.

Global brands have more to learn from the Peloponnesian War than they might think. Several tech titans have fallen into Thucydides’s Trap, stoking the tribal flames of rivalry by pushing consumers to pick a side. You’re either with Us, or Them.

Brands should use their power to unify, not fragment. Whether for yourself or the company you work for, it’s important to ask: Is my primitive brain drawing dividing lines in the sand?

Ancient Greece’s unique flourishing allowed their ideas to live on for thousands of years. The Greeks unwittingly decided to brand build for longevity. You can do it intentionally, by unashamedly embracing what makes you unique.

Thanks for reading. Did you find this article useful? I’d love to hear your feedback. You can reach me directly here or on Twitter (@benbradbury_).