“Branding,” or labeling, people, ideas, and things is a competitive sport in Washington, DC, and America has a president who delights in it. For two Harvard Business School professors branding means learning to “strategically craft powerful, resonant, and unique brand positions to help products stand out amidst the cacophony of the marketplace.” Entrepreneurs search for that memorable image, catchphrase, or tagline that lodges in the brains of influential folk—and earns influence for producers of goods and services.
Nor are strategists exempt from marketing their ideas. Far from it: we’re like marketers on Madison Avenue, forever on the hunt for the strategic counterpart to the Most Interesting Man in the World or the GEICO Gecko—the jingle or ad campaign that administration officials, congressmen, or whatever important audience we’re targeting can’t get out of their heads. “Containment,” “offshore balancing,” “restrainment,” “congagement,” “frenemies,” and of course “Thucydides trap” are just a few catchphrases strategic entrepreneurs have dreamt up over the decades.
Strategists being strategists, we often turn to history—or to historical figures—to help brand our ideas. Thucydides trap, for instance, caught on in large part because the Peloponnesian War and its chronicler still exude glamour two millennia after Athens’ fall to Sparta and its league of allies. Or, because few are familiar nowadays with the Roman dictator Fabius Maximus , it’s commonplace to put George Washington’s face on “ Fabian” strategies . Washington remains a popular figure and was a deft practitioner of Fabius’ brand of delaying measures. The imagery stays with students—and so does the strategic concept.
Not every effort to use history as salesmanship works, though. What makes a good historical metaphor? First of all, pick from history that’s familiar to a critical mass of the demographic you’re attempting to persuade. World War II is an obvious source of analogies for reaching out to American audiences. It’s our Iliad. Failing that, choose history that may be unfamiliar but broadcasts a simple message and has proven appeal even for newcomers. The classics abound with analogies.
Important lessons can manifest themselves in obscure cases; they commonly do. But the more historical background you have to cover to explain the metaphor, the less readily it will register with readers or listeners. Some world-historical events are now largely forgotten, while attention spans expire in a hurry. Think about the battles that made Great Britain master of North America and the maritime world in 1759. These were victories that changed the fates of nations , including our own. Yet it would be hard to make the Battles of Quebec or Quiberon Bay household names. You’d spend too long reviewing the basic facts of the Seven Years’ War to put the analogy in context. Eyes would glaze over.
So historical episodes that are well known, straightforward, or both should constitute your first resort. When addressing a Chinese audience or China specialists, for example, citing the Great Wall evokes a great deal. Toshi Yoshihara and I once likened a first island chain fortified by U.S. allies to a “Great Wall in reverse” that imprisons Chinese ships and aircraft within the China seas. The imagery struck a chord . Viewed from China, the notion of a barrier that keeps China in—rather than nomadic raiders or other foes out—is deeply unsettling.
So make the analogy or metaphor short and punchy, and make it speak to your particular audience. In the ideal case it should be expressible as a parable, a simple story with takeaways immediately intelligible to hearers or readers. Too much ambiguity or nuance subtracts power from the metaphor.
Second, beware when pulling ideas from historical figures. Concepts from diplomatic or military theory may seem straightforward to you, but many are not in the everyday lexicon—even for lawmakers or military officialdom.
What sorts of ideas from the strategic canon resonate? Here’s one: it oftentimes seems that strategy comes in threes. Clausewitz has his “ trinity” of rationality, passion, and chance and creativity—the three elements he says make up any warring combatant. Thucydides designates fear, honor, and interest as the “strongest motives” impelling human affairs. Mahan has two threes: he defines sea power as commerce, bases, and ships, and he proclaims that commercial, political, and military access to important trading regions represents the purpose of sea power. And so forth. Numerology? Maybe. But there’s something about threes.
Select theoretical ideas with care
Certain analogies to battlefield strategy retain their appeal for centuries if not millennia. Take Cannae. Cannae was a battle from Roman antiquity (216 BC, to be exact) during which the Carthaginian general Hannibal deployed guile and deception to stage a “ double envelopment ,” oftentimes simplified to “ pincer movement ,” against a Roman army. The Carthaginian host encircled and slaughtered the Romans almost to the last man, and it did so on Italian ground—earning Hannibal his place on the honor roll of fighting generals.
Now, Carthage ended up losing the Second Punic War—but not until after Hannibal had rampaged up and down the Italian peninsula for seventeen years. Few fault him for eventual defeat. Soldiers studied Cannae well into the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries. For instance, the battle inspired German strategists mapping out strategy for the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). So successful was the Prussian Army’s Carthaginian approach at the Battle of Sedan (September 1870) that Sedan achieved the stature of a historical metaphor in its own right.
In fact, General Alfred von Schlieffen, the architect of Germany’s famous Schlieffen Plan for World War I, commissioned a series of “Cannae Studies” of encounters including both Cannae and Sedan. After reviewing the history of land warfare from antiquity to modernity, the framers of the Cannae Studies concluded that double envelopment, the gold standard during the age of close-quarters combat, remained the key to triumph on industrial-age battlegrounds. So there’s a parable for you: execute an effective double envelopment and you can engrave your name in martial history alongside Hannibal’s.
Cannae reverberates throughout the ages. The U.S. Army reprinted Schlieffen’s studies as recently as the 1980s.
Third, an effective analogy cites a successful strategy, commander, or statesman. Why associate your big idea with failure in your audience’s minds? No one would name a strategic concept after Fort Necessity (1754), George Washington’s cataclysmic failure as a commander—not even to capture Washington’s allure. Dien Bien Phu , the French Army’s debacle in Indochina (1954), likewise makes a loser for branding strategic ideas. The audience may reject your pitch even in the best of circumstances; why start off at a credibility deficit by branding yourself as someone who entertains suspect ideas?
Channel success—not disaster—and make a favorable first impression
That warning also applies to good ideas that failed. Mahan appraises the strategic logic behind Athens’ Sicilian campaign (415 BC) and finds it impeccable, but hitching your proposal to a venture that cost a major power its entire expeditionary fleet and army would be a winner with few audiences. Results matter. Do not label your strategic idea A Sicilian Campaign That Works!
Similarly, avoiding the Schlieffen Plan would be astute. Yes, Schlieffen was acclaimed one of nineteenth-century Germany’s most gifted soldiers, and yes, his campaign design made sense. But it failed. If you cite a historical analogy and immediately have to start making excuses for it, you’re better off looking elsewhere to brand your concept.