Ashoka the Great was emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, on the Indian subcontinent, from 269 BC to 232 BC. And for the first eight years of his reign he was, to put it mildly, a bit of a bastard. Bastardry comes in many forms, but Ashoka’s preferred brand was extreme violence. And vast, blood-soaked quantities of it.
When a few of his harem insulted him he burned all 500 of them. He murdered 500 ministers in a test of loyalty. He killed 99 of his brothers, sparing only one. And he built a series of elaborate and hellish torture chambers…because he enjoyed torturing people in elaborate and hellish chambers.
It’s safe to say that when things didn’t go his way, Ashoka had a bit of a temper. Much like Elton John. But more so. He reigned by fear and bullying and killing people. All of which made him rather unpopular. He had all the power, but no respect. In marketing terms, his brand was toxic. Like Goldman Sachs, say. Or Gary Glitter.
As well as the fun regional bullying and murder, Ashoka also dabbled in more serious warmongering. In much the same way that old people dabble in bridge or whist drives. It got him out of the house.
And so it was that in 262 BC, perhaps because he was bored but probably more because he was paranoid and jealous, he set out to conquer the neighbouring region of Kalinga. What followed is recorded as one of the bloodiest battles in Indian history.
Perhaps not surprisingly, because of his relentless bastardry and willingness to commit the most awful savagery and evil, Ashoka won. It is estimated that 150,000 were killed, although this figure is probably doing him a terrible disservice and many more may have perished.
True to form, Ashoka absolutely loved it. That is until he saw what he had really done.
On the day after his victory, as he was strutting about the region congratulating himself and inspecting his most excellent butchery, all the carnage and destruction and the burning and the bodies, he had something of an epiphany. Perhaps being such a ceaseless thug wasn’t quite so great after all. Perhaps he wasn’t as clever as he thought. Perhaps he was just an extraordinarily unpleasant man with an enormous ego who wielded vast power and mistook that for respect. A bit like Rupert Murdoch.
He broke down and cried…
“What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant…. What’s this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?
Pretty moving stuff.
Indeed, such was the ferocity of the killing and the all terrible slaughter that Ashoka converted to Buddhism. He set about practising the Buddhist tenets of peace and mindfulness and forgiveness, and he even stopped slaughtering animals and became a vegetarian. Like Linda McCartney, but without the frozen food range.
It was all a far cry from murdering his brothers and building hellish torture chambers.
He decided to channel all that furious energy into spreading Buddhism both within his region and beyond, and it is now widely acknowledged that Ashoka was responsible for the first serious attempt to develop a Buddhist policy in India. But he couldn’t do all this overnight. After all, he had something of a reputation for picking silly fights. Rather like Jamiroquai.
He needed a serious re-brand and that takes time and effort. And success is not always guaranteed, especially when your most recognisable brand values are: 1. wanton violence; and, 2. death.
So, this is what he did.
Ashoka went from city to city and asked to speak to the people. All of whom no doubt soiled themselves when they saw him riding around, calling them from their homes. But he came preaching peace and nonviolence and to get their ideas on what they wanted and valued from life. He was a bit like an imperial market research team. On a horse.
He listened. And he listened. Possibly he made notes on ancient paper. And then, having burnt or beheaded or tortured absolutely no-one, he rode back to his palace with all this information and started building elaborate stone pillars.
Each pillar was between forty and fifty feet high and weighed about fifty tonnes. And each was inscribed with the findings of his research and essential Buddhist teachings. Crucially, too, he insisted that all inscriptions be in local dialects, specific to the towns and villages he had visited. So there was clarity and honesty and no marketing bullshit. There would be no “cross-pollinated vertical channel strategies” or “baked marketing ecosystems” for Ashoka. Just normal words that normal people spoke with their normal mouths. Words that actually meant something and that everyone could understand.
He then had these pillars transported back to the cities, like Vaishali, Allahbad and Sarnath, and erected them on hills and in popular gathering spots, so that each served as a permanent pledge to those people in that area. An enormous fifty-foot high stone pledge to Buddhism, peace and nonviolence, and to serving the specific needs and desires of the people that lived nearby. Not an order sent down from a despotic madman to obey him, but a permanent reminder of his obligations to them.
Ashoka then set out to raise the ambitions of all his subjects by building universities and schools in each of these regions, as well as hospitals and irrigation systems and advanced trade structures. All of which had the aim of eliminating prejudice and political bias and the caste system. Of making everyone equal.
Not everything worked, of course. Life’s never perfect. But much did. And not surprisingly his people were both impressed and grateful. And life in the region improved dramatically.
So now Ashoka is remembered not as the heinous, sword wielding madman who enjoyed pulling the wings off butterflies and murdering people for fun. But as the greatest of all Indian emperors, a peace-loving Buddhist and an exemplary leader who was respected and adored by all.
He is remembered like that because he explored alternative perspectives. Because he showed extraordinary creativity. Because he listened first and then spoke, with clarity and honesty. Because he was willing to change. And because every single one of those pillars told a bloody good story.
Which, is probably the very least that all brands should aim for, all of the time. No matter who they are or how toxic they might be.
Perspective. Creativity. Clarity. Honesty. And a great story.
That was Ashoka’s secret.
Not a bad turnaround for a nasty bastard who set fire to all his wives.