Aesop’s Fables have become embedded in everyday conversation but, says Malcolm White, some of the tales can be used to help solve a number of today’s business, marketing and communications problems, and offers some examples of how they apply.
One of my many problems is that I move very slowly. Perhaps it is perversity, or maybe advanced age, but the faster the modern world turns, the slower I move. For example, I simply refuse to run for a plane or a train.
After yet another close-run (or should that be slow-run?) train departure, a work colleague I was travelling with, someone who is certainly not a slow mover, remonstrated with me for being more ‘tortoise than hare’.
He was of course referring to the well-known story about a hare who is so overconfident in his ability to win a race with a tortoise that he lies down for a sleep in the middle of the race, and the tortoise overtakes him to win it.
The story of the tortoise and the hare is of course one of the fables of Aesop. Most cultures have a variant of this fable, and others like it, and fables like the ‘tortoise and the hare’ have become deeply embedded in our everyday conversation.
But my radical proposal is that there’s more to these fables than just their ubiquity or their entertainment value; that, actually, Aesop’s Fables can help us to think through and solve a number of today’s business, marketing and communications problems; and that Aesop was over 2,500 years ahead of his time. Let me start with Aesop’s prescience.
A fable that in my Penguin Classics edition of Aesop’s Fables is entitled ‘Much Wants More’ is a version of what we today call the story of The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg. Aesop’s earlier version tells the story of how a man is rewarded for his piety by the Gods with a goose who lays golden eggs. Consumed by greed, the man convinces himself that the goose’s insides must be made of gold, kills the goose and, of course, cuts off his golden egg supply.
David Pilling’s new book The Growth Delusion: The Wealth and Well-Being of Nations (Bloomsbury, 2018) makes the same point, at much greater length, although without the aid of livestock. He exposes and critiques our modern obsession with the pursuit of growth at all costs, whether the pursuer is a nation-state or a corporation.
As Pilling sees it, we’re experiencing what he describes as a ‘popular rage’ in countries that, judged by the conventional standards of prosperity and growth, have never had it so good, because we’ve got our priorities wrong and follow Growth like a (false) God. Maybe if more of us remembered our Aesop’s Fables, and took them to heart, we wouldn’t now find ourselves in such a mess.
Aesop also identified the idea of Cognitive Dissonance long before the American psychologist Leon Festinger defined it. Festinger’s observation that “the existence of dissonance [or inconsistency], being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance [or consistency]” (Festinger, 1957), finds rather more delightful expression in the memorable fable called ‘Sour Grapes’, starring one of Aesop’s many foxes. Try how he might, a fox can’t reach some succulent-looking grapes hanging from a vine, and so reduces the resulting dissonance between ambition and achievement by saying “They weren’t ripe anyhow.”
The most valuable business lesson that Aesop teaches, however, is in his fable called ‘Know Your Limitations’. In this fable, a donkey tries to copy the frisky behaviour of a favourite pet dog in the hope of being rewarded, like the pet dog, with the leftovers from dinner. But this angers the donkey’s master so much that the donkey is chased off and tied to its manger. No leftovers for him.
The reason I appreciate the value of this fable is because I’ve been lucky enough to see first hand that ‘knowing your limitations’, and acting on that understanding, can be as powerful a business- and brand-building strategy as, for example, a new definition of a market can be.
You see, we at krow are part of the team that has helped grow Britain’s leading soft-furnishings brand, DFS, from £750m in sales to approximately £1bn, in just six years. This has been achieved, in part, by executing CEO Ian Filby’s bold strategy to develop lots of new and surprising product and service partnerships as well as, in recent years, pursuing the acquisition of soft-furnishing brands with a very different appeal to DFS, such as Sofa Workshop, who target affluent consumers.
Ian’s idea, born from a clear and dispassionate analysis of DFS’s limitations as a brand, was that the most effective and efficient way for DFS to broaden its appeal was to enlist the help, and equity, of others, not try to go it alone.
What Ian spotted, which I don’t think Aesop had, is that limitations needn’t be limiting: they can, in fact, be hugely liberating.