Ancient Sparta’s Branding Challenge
After a humiliating battlefield defeat in 425 BC, the Greek city-state of Sparta needed to restore its swagger in the Greek World. What would a modern branding team have advised?
Ancient Spartan warriors generated what modern communications’ experts call “brand heat”. Known for being disciplined, dutiful, brave, fit, and fearless, Spartan soldiers lived for battle, their fellow Spartans, and masculine military virtue. Respected for their stamina and stealth, and feared for their pledge to never surrender, they forged a formidable war machine.
They also looked the part. Caped in identical red cloaks, they wore their hair long and braided. And, unlike other Greeks, all of whom they considered inferior, they shaved their upper lips. Their characteristic round shields even carried a logo of sorts — the Greek letter lambda (an inverted “V”), representing their homeland of Laconia.
Compared to their fellow Greek competitors, such as the jealous Argives, the shifty Athenians, the double-dealing Thebans, or worse, any army that preferred to kill with arrows rather than up close with swords and spears, Spartan soldiers inspired awe for their exploits, toughness, and conformist unity. They could also read and write and were known to sing and dance with gusto at the many festivals on the Spartan calendar.
By today’s media standards, Spartans were TikTok naturals and thumb-stopping, sexy influencers poised to command attention at the top of the marketing funnel. But then in 425 BC, the unthinkable happened. Sparta’s macho image — encapsulated in the promise to “Never Surrender” — shattered with the surrender of 120 of its elite warriors to the Athenians. Sparta’s self-identity and military prowess, born of swagger and certainty, was now an open question. Simply put, invincibility now teetered at the edge of vulnerability, a threat to Sparta’s brand message if there ever was one.
In this classic crisis moment, imagine a hypothetical modern-day branding team embarking for Sparta aboard the fastest trireme in order to answer the call from Sparta’s two kings for a rebranding proposal.
Consider, too, the bullet points this creative team would summarize in its brief after a punishing list of stakeholder interviews:
· Sparta is not promoting anything but its own image. It sees no need for any mutually-beneficial exchanges. “We’re the best at what we do. And we know what’s best for us.”
· Sparta’s brand personality is fierceness and intimidation. “We spend years training our men to be tough, resourceful, bad-ass warriors.” Yet such fierceness is tempered by religious piety that borders on paralyzing superstition. “What’s wrong with looking at the entrails of a goat before deciding whether to fight or not?”
· Sparta’s leaders want regional hegemony in the Peloponnese. Keeping the local population enslaved is an important part of that effort. “We need slaves to do the work so we can be free to do the wars.” Note: Landed wealth contributes to the power and influence of oligarchic families, whose infighting undermines the credo of selflessness.
· Spartans don’t see other Greeks as competitors but as enemies. Athens’ brand of democracy tops the enemies’ list. “Athenians are dangerous because democracy is dangerous. Only the best people should be allowed to rule.”
· Trust and reliability can be a problem for the Spartans, especially when critical decisions, such as sending soldiers to fight at Marathon against the Persians in 490 BC, conflict with religious festivals. “We can’t wage war during the Carneia. It would offend Apollo!”
· Spartans love secrecy and members of their secret police force, called the Crypteia, have been known to commit murder in presumed defense of Sparta’s repressive government. “How else are we going to be able to eliminate troublemakers quietly?”
· Sparta’s story is about making heroes. “We take male children from their families at age seven, force them into barracks, and over time turn them into the best soldiers in the world.” Note: this Agoge system has sometimes been decried as brutalizing and cruel. Curiously, firstborn sons from royal families are not required to undergo this training.
· Spartans’ self-descriptors — Dorian, brave, fierce, masculine, not Athenian — reveal a deep superiority complex, as well as a bias against innovation. “Everyone wants to be like us. But they’ll never manage it because they want to take shortcuts. They’re weak-willed.”
· Spartans are taught to use few words. This is portrayed as masculine but contributes to the sense that Spartans are always hiding something. “Ask a Spartan to explain himself and he’ll likely answer, ‘I am a Spartan.’ ” Note: The word “laconic,” which means using few words, derives from the Spartan homeland of Laconia.
· Spartans are uninterested in testing brand perception. They want quick wins instead. “There’s nothing more to know. Intimidation is what we’re after, and we want it now.”
· Spartan women wield considerable influence as mothers of future warriors. Unlike other Greek women, they can inherit property. Note: there is no law against adultery. “Sixty years ago, we had 8,000 citizens. We have far fewer now. What is Sparta without soldiers?”
After reviewing the data again, our exhausted branding team would have been forced to conclude that in the post-surrender age of 425 BC, the Spartans were going to have to broaden their appeal.
More unsettling was the whole communal spirit-socialist-secrecy-brutality thing that stamped Spartan culture. Clearly, there had to be some wiggle room for individual liberty if Spartans were to keep their competitors off balance.
Boxed into a brand-identity corner, and needing to offer something concrete, the team settled on the existing “Never Surrender (Unless it Works to Your Advantage)” as a conceptual framework just to keep the conversation going.
The Spartans weren’t pleased with the team’s lack of progress and demanded a full-throated oral presentation, no materials allowed.
When that day came, our branding mavens opted to front load their remarks with tactical, not conceptual, recommendations they could raise and dismiss. It was a time-honored trick of the trade:
“You could build some beautiful new temples and start a tourist industry.”
“You could bring in some pottery designers and design a new line of exportable ceramics that would drive those red-figure guys in Athens out of business.”
“Spartans like to sing. How about a musical festival that rivals the Olympics? You could call it Spartachella.”
“Or how about a traveling male stripper show called the Loins of Laconia?”
But when the team shifted gears and explained that the Spartan brand had to be an awesome experience that transformed its users, it was the Spartans turn to be baffled. “Isn’t that what we already have?” they asked.
“Yes, but what problem does your current brand need to solve?” the team replied. (The team dared not suggest that given the surrender of its elite soldiers, Sparta would likely lose its Best Army top-ranking when the annual Pan-Greek Top 50 survey was next released.)
“We don’t have a problem,” the Spartans insisted. “We have a battlefield, command-system error that we need to reposition.”
“OK, but what does your current brand make others outside of Sparta feel?” the team pressed.
“Fear,” the Spartans declared.
“But you need allies who want to engage with your aspirations, be part of your story. Fear drives them away,” the modern experts explained.
“That’s good,” the Spartans applauded.
“Let’s take a step back,” the exasperated team leader suggested. “Tell me in your own words about this heroic story behind why your brand was created?”
One of the Spartan kings rose to speak. “We’re surrounded by enemies. For that reason, we’ve needed to think and act as a group.”
“We’re just better than everyone. We’re heroes,” the second king added.
It wasn’t going well. The Spartans were, to put it mildly, conservative and hidebound. They were still happy with what wasn’t working anymore and, worse, unlikely to change. So, being astute and clever and perhaps a bit worried about their own personal safety, our branding experts changed course. They decided to give the clients what they already had but call it something new.
The brand account leader took the floor. “I was going to suggest that part of your issue is a naming problem. For example, why not call those you’ve enslaved, I think you call them Helots, something like helpers instead? It’s what they do after all. Help. And this odd word ‘hoplite’ for your soldiers. ‘Hophard’ is far more intimidating. But let’s not worry about those details now. Let’s go right to the heart of the matter. Your brand tagline, “Never Surrender”, just isn’t strong enough.”
The guffaws and angry threats nearly drove our branding experts from the temple hall in fear for their lives.
“Let me explain. If your brand were a person, how would you describe this person? Fierce and invincible would be your answer. So let’s ditch the word ‘surrender’ completely.”
The Spartans quieted down. Some yelled out suggestions. “How about ‘Always Win’? I like ‘Spears for Tears’.”
“Interesting ideas, but I think they need a deeper review,” our account leader smiled. “I have a suggestion. Let’s change ‘Never Surrender’ to ‘Killing It.’ It works well with red, which perfectly captures the color of your passion and all that battlefield blood.”
“Brilliant” both kings cheered. “It speaks to us. It’s pure paronomasia! A category king!”
“You could add some subordinate lines like ‘Red Means Dead.’ The possibilities are endless,” our branding experts gushed. Of course they knew that a tagline alone did not a brand make. But no matter. Best not to advise the Spartans of this frequent blunder.
The celebration lasted deep into the night. In the morning, the royal diviner killed a goat and read its entrails. For the ever-superstitious Spartans, the omens were good. The new tagline would be announced in every city in the Greek world. Persia too. Sparta’s setback would be forgotten. A new Sparta had been born. Going forward, it would be all about touch points, core values, brand personality, and emotional triggers. It was almost as if Sparta didn’t have to fight battles anymore. “Killing It” would be sufficient to intimidate when messaged consistently.
Of course, as the Spartans — and contemporary organizations have learned — actions do speak louder than words, even if those words are artful or clever. This fantasy branding exercise wouldn’t have changed Spartan history, its military essence, authoritarian culture, superstitious nature, or bedrock social promise that largely excluded non-citizens, no matter how tortured Sparta’s subsequent history revealed these decisions to be.
By that time though, our hypothetical modern brand strategists would have moved on. And where would they have gone? To Athens, of course.
To counter the successful rebranding of its Spartan enemies, Athens would now need expert advice on its own brand color and tagline to boost wartime morale. As a good first pitch, our brand strategy team settled on the color blue because it signified trust and the tagline “Take No Prisoners”. Cynicism, after all, was a Greek invention.