Ruth Mortimer: Seal of approval from ancient Egypt

Karl Marx once wrote: Value does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. In other words, items of value do not need to tell people that they are valuable; their worth should be patently obvious to everybody.

120x120_f3Karl Marx once wrote: “Value does not stalk about with a label describing what it is.” In other words, items of value do not need to tell people that they are valuable; their worth should be patently obvious to everybody.

Marx’s observation might at first be dismissed by modern marketers as nothing more than a historical relic. After all, the whole process of modern branding is based around the concept that items of value do need labels to describe them. Marking items with labels creates brands, elevating products above mere commodities and allowing them to command higher prices.

But the past has lessons to teach even the most up-to-date companies. This can be demonstrated by taking a trip back in time to ancient Egypt, where an object dating from about 3000BC – which has a perforation in one corner, probably to attach it to a vessel – was found in a royal tomb. It is essentially a branded label. One part of the inscription on it proclaims that it denotes a specific quantity of the “finest oil of Tjehenu”, a region in modern-day Libya that would have been considered exotic in the ancient Nile valley. In other words, a plain old boast about product quality and sexiness.

The inscription also bears the name of a specific oil press, which perhaps acted as a mark of provenance in the manner of a particular vineyard on a modern wine label. What’s more, the Egyptian seal has a depiction of a kingship renewal ceremony that is not unlike explanations of the heritage of family vineyards on modern wine bottles. Even copywriting hasn’t changed much in the past 5000 years.

In design terms, things are also distressingly familiar. The ancient “label” features an image of a sealing device on it, representing the act of keeping containers closed and fresh, which predates even this era. The Egyptian seal design carries both the name of a king, Horus-Den, and an administrator, Hemaka. You only have to look at the “By Appointment to…” seal that appears on products used by the UK’s modern royal family to see a clear parallel.

The seal device is still widely used in modern corporate marketing to communicate exactly the same values that it did in prehistory. Budweiser, Chanel and Jameson Whisky all use seal depictions on their packaging to communicate the message that they have a lengthy heritage, hold authentic goods and differentiate themselves from cheaper versions of the same product.

We should not consider the Egyptian discovery as the definitive proof that we’re all just repeating history, of course. The example above is just one tiny piece of evidence remaining from one culture at one time. It relies heavily on the physical side of branding expressed through packaging rather than the more strategic version of marketing practised in many businesses.

But even if you couldn’t give a damn about the past, think about the following points. First, don’t get obsessed with creating new ideas. The fundamental natures of people, economies and even trade have not really changed substantially over time. For example, in ancient cultures, people communicated messages, feelings, status and everything else through decoration on ceramics. These days we have Facebook to send out the same messages, but the underlying human interests and motivations haven’t substantially altered. Remember to tap into fundamental, unchanging human needs when you’re marketing your products.

Second, if you have a history within your brand, look back at it for inspiration. Most brands had an initial vision or value that is forgotten over time but remains relevant. For example, if I worked at chocolate maker Cadbury, I’d be delving into my company’s founding principles about social enterprise and using these to come up with new forward-thinking policies about sourcing and value chains. People are increasingly questioning corporate ethics and the brand has its answers within its own legacy.

Third, tap into common human beliefs, whether these are expressed through design or strategy. We don’t need to be historical experts to understand the use of a seal mark says that a product is authentic and valuable. We are programmed from our early days to take the signs and signals of the past into the present. Never underestimate the power of symbols.

For the final say on the matter, let’s go back to Karl Marx. He summed up his feelings about value by saying it converts every product into a “social hieroglyphic” which we later try to decipher.

Well, here we are 5000 years after that Egyptian “label” was first produced, still trying to decipher exactly what we should be doing with our marketing. It just shows that time moves on, but some things never change.


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