Lessons from Cleopatra–Control Your Brand’s Narrative

I just finished reading the new biography “Cleopatra, A Life,” by Stacy Schiff.  I have to admit that nearly everything I thought about the woman (aka “brand”) relied on Shakespeare’s telling and Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal.  According to Ms. Schiff, while Cleopatra’s “name is indelible, the image is blurry” for most of us.

Richer than anyone else in the Mediterranean, and one of the sole females to rule alone and play a role in Western affairs, there is perhaps only one surviving word from Cleopatra herself.  There are no surviving papyri from Alexandria and next to nothing of the ancient city exists above ground today.  While the true historical record has been obliterated, the legend lives on. 

While she was alive, Cleopatra was a deft politician, diplomat and ruler of her people.  Fluent in nine languages and extremely charismatic, she was not able to control the narrative about herself and her culture in the Roman-ruling world.  Here are a few pointers I picked up about why Cleopatra had a hard time molding her brand perception for the rest of the world, that may apply to your company’s brands.

1. Competitors  Cleopatra’s history was written by her enemies.  To the victors go the spoils and the propaganda machine.  Are your competitors outlining the narrative of your product category–telling consumers what they should value and who the best choice is in your category?

2. Reach  Augustus Caesar was able to twist Cleopatra’s story into a tabloid version, painting her as insatiable, treacherous, bloodthirsty and power-crazed.  He was able to do this because Cleopatra didn’t have a legitimate power base in Rome, the only city that mattered.  Is your brand a home-town hero, but not known or established in geographic regions where thought-leaders and brand advocates operate? 

3. Oxymorons   Do you extol your brand’s benefits  which aren’t a fit for the category or consumer need?   Cleopatra had to buck the perception that a woman couldn’t be capable in government or military affairs simply because she was a woman.  Are you bucking a deep-rooted belief system antithetical with your products or services?

4. Lack of Awareness  Most comprehensive sources never met Cleopatra and were born nearly a century or two after she was.  Historians who drew her biography for the ages had no original source material and relied on memories and hyperbole.  Are you guilty of not defining your key messages for your brand and relying on others to communicate what they think your brand is all about?  What do you do when someone complains about your brand online–do you engage or hope the criticism fades from the collective consciousness?

5. Guilt by Association  Cleopatra hailed from the intoxicating and exotic land of Egypt, which translated to excess and steamy relationships to most people on the north side of the Mediterranean.  Because she wasn’t beautiful, the Romans naturally believed that she must have magical powers to charm and disarm their most powerful leaders.  I’ve mentioned this example before, but do you remember the Pace Picante Sauce commercials that had cowboys being indignant at salsa that was made in New York City?  How can you use your geography or cache of your category to your advantage and credibility, not your detriment? 

If we can learn one thing from Cleopatra (considered the principal player of her age) it’s to control our brand narrative, so that our audience hears our story as we would like it told for the present and the future.

“Cleopatra, A Life,” by Stacy Schiff (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), published by Little, Brown and Company, 2010.

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    2 Comments

    1. Posted March 23, 2011 at 3:27 am | Permalink

      Mary, thanks for sharing this. There is always a lesson in everything if we care to look out for them.I like the part of lack of awareness though. Keep it up

    2. Posted March 25, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      Yinka, Thanks for your comment! You’re right, there are always lessons in everything, the best we can do is look beyond our emotions and discover how to learn from our mistakes and those of others.

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