What the Sirens Sang

The New York Times recently ran an article about Pariano, a town on the Amalfi Coast region of Italy where, they claim, the mythic Sirens of “The Odyssey” tempted the equally mythic king of rocky Ithaca to lead his ship onto the rocks.  The story, however imaginary, brings to mind the single most illuminating question asked of me in college and remains a great question for legacy brands:

What song did the Sirens sing?


Dude, ear plugs are like 99¢ at CVS

The answer actually matters.  In fact, it matters a lot if you develop brand marketing for a living.

Before a visiting professor asked and then answered this question, I always envisioned the Sirens as the ancient world’s version of girl group backup singers, just kind of vocalizing rather than reciting lyrics.  However, when Odysseus recounts his tales of woe to Alcinous, king of the Phaeacians, he reports the following song:

Come closer, famous Odysseus—Achaea’s pride and glory
Moor your ship on our coast so you can hear our song!
Never has any sailor passed our shores in his black craft
Until he has heard the honeyed voices pouring from our lips,
And once he hears to his heart’s content sails on, a wiser man.
We know all the pains that Achaeans and Trojans once endured
On the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
All that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!

(From Robert Fagle’s translation: PDF, emphasis mine)

In other words, the Sirens tried to lure Odysseus to his demise by singing to him about what a great man he had been when he fought before and within the walls of Troy (he was the one with the horse idea, remember).  In the story, Odysseus found himself unable to resist and only survived because he heeded warnings and had his men tie him to the mast.

In the context of the poem, this scene represents a decisive turning point for Odysseus.  Previous to the Sirens, Odysseus became increasingly lost, increasingly farther from home.  After, he finds himself increasingly closer to home, both geographically and in terms of his state of mind.  Before telling the story, Homer compares him to a lion.  Soon afterwards, he describes him as a tired farmer at the end of a long day.

To put it another way, if Odysseus had listened only to stories about his glory days, he would have died.  I trust that this warning has immediate value to anyone managing a brand.

A brand’s history, of course, can form a powerful part of its branding.  There’s a reason Levi’s has “1873” on its label, after all. However, when a brand insists that it means the same thing in the 21st century as it did when it was founded decades or centuries ago, it begins to live in the past.  For example, Cadillac still acted as if they lived in their 1950s heyday when they launched the Cimarron, often listed as one of the worst cars ever built.

In turn, I beseech you to think about whether your brand listens to its sirens and whether anyone is keeping an eye out for the rocks.

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