Marketing Is Not New; Lessons from the Ancient Roman City of Pompeii

Marketing is not a new concept. It’s actually a very old concept and way older than many people realize. You can find traces of marketing all the way back in ancient history. Many of these marketing lessons from history are surprisingly similar to concepts that many consider relatively recent ideas.

Before we dive into ancient Rome, it’s important to realize just how deeply held the beliefs are that most marketing concepts are very new. Many marketers and even business scholars consistently talk about how modern or “present-day” marketing is a brand new concept or totally revolutionary. Digital marketing is one the latest of these revolutionary concepts.

Marketing scholars and professionals alike are ironically engaged in a perpetual marketing of new concepts and theories. Many of these ideas, especially those rooted in innovative new technologies are very important to consider when marketing your business. But they are in no way the beginning of marketing or the idea of marketing.

The basics of marketing have been the same essentially forever. A person or business, which is really just a group of people, has a product or service they want to sell (or trade). They then need to persuade another person they should buy (or trade) that product or service. Finally, they potentially need to insure that other person remains happy so that person will continue buying (or trading). Everything done in furtherance of that is marketing. It’s that simple.

A Brief History of the History of Marketing

Many digital marketers will say we’re in the midst of a whole new era of marketing and it’s literally changing everything. Marketing is becoming a science thanks to new tools, analytics, and the trackability of digital strategies. It’s true that marketing is evolving, but it’s always been evolving.

Before digital marketing became buzzy, business schools taught that the then current iteration of marketing was also relatively new and revolutionary. Academics trumpeted the work of Robert Keith’s “The Marketing Revolution” from the January 1960 issue of the Journal of Marketing. Business textbooks often cited Keith and implied, or even directly stated, that modern day marketing burst into existence in the 1950s.

This idea is based on the story Keith tells about Pillsbury’s marketing revolution, namely the third era at Pillsbury that he called the “marketing oriented” era. Keith was a successful marketer for Pillsbury and he was also heralded by the marketing industry in general. He was called a “Leader in Marketing” by the AMA in their July 1968 issue of the Journal of Marketing.

However, Keith’s views have not gone unchallenged. In the January 1988 issue of the Journal of Marketing a professor named Ronald Fullerton posited that Keith’s ideas were not historically accurate. His article was titled “How Modern Is Modern Marketing? Marketing’s Evolution and the Myth of the ‘Production Era’.”

Keith argued that the history of marketing should be viewed from the perspective of what he calls a “complex flux model.” In this model he said that marketing history began around 1500 in an “era of antecedents” when “capitalism was still flickering into life.” Keith gives the past a lot more credit than most, but he still draws a fine line at the 16th century and further says that “modern marketing begins” in 1750.

The truth is that for as long as business, and really commerce more broadly, has existed the idea of marketing has existed. If marketing is constantly being described as revolutionary, the truth is probably that it’s never revolutionary. The notion of marketing — even if it didn’t exist as an academic discipline or even as a word — has existed ever since the first person had a product or service they wanted to sell or barter.

The techniques will always be changing and evolving, but the bottom line has remained virtually unchanged. Let’s dive into some of the earliest examples of marketing that come from the first century AD in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

Marketing in the Ancient Roman City of Pompeii

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August, 24th in AD 79 was a horrible tragedy for the local inhabitants. But this horrible incident also provides a treasure trove of well-preserved artifacts that help paint an amazing picture of the daily life in a Roman city during the first century AD.

Archaeologists have learned a lot about living in Pompeii at the time, and many of their discoveries amazingly teach us a lot about the history of marketing. And like with all history, lessons from the past can help educate us. We can learn the lessons of our predecessors to improve on their successes and avoid repeating their failures.

The Story of Umbricius Scaurus, a Legendary Fish Sauce Producer

In the first century, Umbricius Scaurus was a legendary figure in Pompeii. He was a manufacturer of a variety of fish sauce known as liquamen or garum at the time. NBC News has described him as “Pompeii’s most famous garum producer.” They report that his sweet and sour fish sauce was used on most dishes in lieu of more expensive salt.

It’s true that Scaurus was very successful at selling his fish sauce, and he was so successful that he actually lived in an extremely lavish house for the time. According to “A Personalized Floor Mosaic from Pompeii,” an article by Robert Curtis — an expert in Pompeii and ancient food who also holds a Ph.D. in ancient history, approximately 29% of all inscribed fish sauce containers were produced by Scaurus. This means Scaurus basically controlled one third of the fish sauce market.

Part of his success stems from the fact that his containers of liquamen would be branded. We know this because Curtis also tells us that the containers would have labels saying thing like “the best liquamen” and “product of Scaurus.” The name Scaurus, his brand, and his products were known to be of very high quality in Campania — the coastal region surrounding Pompeii — and really all throughout the Mediterranean region. It was understood that these labels meant you were getting a high quality fish sauce.

According to Kenneth F.C. Rose’s book “The Date and Author of Satyricon,” another scholar has even gone so far as to describe him as the “Ketchup King of Campania.” To be clear, this scholar is not talking about the tomato-based ketchup that’s become today, but the original ketchup that was also a fish sauce. The fact that his name is still talked about means he must have done something right in terms of branding and advertising his fish sauce.

The labels that Scaurus used may not be as elaborate as the branding we think of for modern day brands like Nike or Disney. Even if his fish sauce was not technically branding, it was an early form of marketing. The labels communicated with the customer. So you can call it branding, advertising, or some other precursor form of marketing communication. It’s still marketing at its core.

The Story of Vesuvinum & Surrentinum, a Tale of Two Wine Varieties

In Pompeii, and throughout the Roman world, pottery was used extensively for many things including the storage of wine. Wine was often packaged and stored in containers called amphoras. Each amphora would often have a titulus pictus, which is a commercial inscription on the pottery indicating the product, its origin, and potentially other information.

In the April 2009 issue of the American Journal of Archaeology, two experts in Roman archaeology, J. Theodore Peña and Myles McCallum, discuss the records and evidence related to ancient pottery found in the excavations around Mount Vesuvius. They specifically discuss the use of pottery in the distribution and consumption of wine in ancient Campania. The facts they bring up illuminate some ancient practices that sound an awful lot like marketing.

First, Peña and McCallum tell us that about two specific tituli picti used on wine amphoras. Vesuvinum was used for wine from Mount Vesuvius and Surrentinum metallianum for one variety of wine from Surrentum (present day Sorrento). Vesuvinum is thought by many to be a portmanteau of Vesuvius, the Roman name for Mount Vesuvius, and vinum, the Latin word for wine. Surrentinum is likely a similar blend of Surrentum and vinum, and metallianum specifies the variety of wine from that area.

The fact that these wine amphoras were labeled indicates the products were differentiated enough that people wanted to know what they were buying. An amphora labeled vinum wouldn’t have sufficed for the wine drinkers of Campania. So the Romans in the region engaged in branding of sorts by labeling the products more specifically with blended names like Vesuvinum. The example from Surrentum is particularly interesting, because it indicates there may have been multiple competing varieties in that one area and the tituli picti was not only an origin stamp.

Second and perhaps more telling are the epigrams described by Peña and McCallum found on the thin-walled calices, Latin for cups, used to drink wine. They describe one that reads, “do not accept calices born of some cheap dust, but rather the smooth shaping of a Surrentine potter’s wheel.” And another reads, “Are you drinking Surrentine wines? Don’t take up cups of mottled agate or a gold one—these wines will provide you with their own calices.” Note that Surrentine refers to a person from or a thing made in Surrentum.

These memorable inscriptions tell us a few things about just how real marketing was in ancient civilization. The first epigram is clearly engaged in branding through packaging by espousing how all other cups not made in Surrentum are inferior products. The cup from Surrentum will be smooth and made by an expert potter, whereas the competition is just selling cheap dust. Who wants a wine amphora that will be leaching dust into their fine Pompeian wine?

As Peña and McCallum explain, the second epigram is “enigmatic, [but] it most likely refers to and plays on the fact that Surrentum produced both wine and cups for drinking it.” That’s a clear appeal to buy products from Surrentum, because they are experts in both wine and wine drinkware. A clear case of marketing to their potential customers that they were superior to their competitors.

Marketing Technology Changes; Principles of Marketing Don’t

A lot of people are constantly trying to turn marketing into some new latest and greatest idea. If you just do this one new marketing trick, your business will explode. This is especially prevalent in digital marketing right now, and you have to be careful not to waste money on digital marketing efforts that are mostly fluff.

The reality is marketing has existed forever. New ideas and technologies are constantly coming to market, and many are interesting but few are as revolutionary as they’re advertised. The biggest revolution in marketing might be the debate over marketing that began sometime in the early to mid-1900s as marketing educators and historians began to argue over when present day marketing began.

We’re now in an environment where some marketing experts are educating other marketers on how to sell marketing services to marketers who help businesses promote their products and services to consumers. It rivals the successive dream levels of the movie Inception.

The technical nature of digital marketing can make it seem like marketing is something more complicated than it needs to be. This is especially tricky for many small businesses right now, because they don’t have the technical staff to understand all of the technological details of implementing certain digital marketing strategies. That’s unfortunate because digital marketing is important, but what’s even more important is understanding the principles of marketing.

The components of digital marketing are mostly tools that can be implemented by any tech savvy professional. The real magic from digital marketing happens when those who are adept at implementing technology are joined by creative marketers who understand the true art of marketing that has existed at least since ancient Rome.

What do you think about the idea that marketing has basically existed forever? Maybe you have a story that supports or contradicts this idea. Let us know why you agree or disagree in the comments.

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