How we got to now: The strategic value of history in branding

May232017

Organizations are in a desperate race for attention, which means they are always reexamining their brand, positioning, and messaging.  They know they have to be well-differentiated and authentic. They worry about building for the future and how to get there. Very few of them will turn to the past to find answers.

“Who are we?” has been a vexing question for most organizations. In a crisis leaders will ask “how we got to now” but few will truly investigate how the organization evolved and adapted in the past.  Instead of divining the essential truths of the organization that have become an indelible part of its DNA and leveraging those insights, most managers are oriented to looking ahead. They are dismissive of history, seeing it only as something quaint and charming, an amusing collection of memories without any compelling strategic use.

For a leader planning to take an organization into the future, one of the most powerful management tools available may be a sophisticated understanding of its past.  It is, quite simply, crucial to branding and strategic thinking.

“Where we’ve been, Where we are, Where we’re going”

American Experience (PBS) tagline

The past explains identity, shapes perceptions, creates options, identifies constraints; demythologizes nostalgia in order to understand why decisions were made at the time they were, and why; reveals unifying themes, or clarifies stories, that can help heal rifts; helps pass on the values of the founder so the torch can be passed to the next generation of leaders, or to help young employees mesh with older employees. These insights help leaders with two vital jobs: revealing the direction of future strategy and uniting employees with a common, inspiring and authentic identity story.

“You’ve got to know where you came from to know what to do next.”

Abraham Lincoln, attributed by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Leveraging those lessons can have a profound impact on how successfully an organization’s work is understood and appreciated. Smart organizations use the lens of history to examine their challenges, and put those experiences to work, whether Budweiser – which examined its founding story and stressed the value of immigration in a much-lauded ad created for the 2017 Super Bowl – or McKinsey & Company – which learned, as it evolved from being a small and informal partnership to a global consulting network, that it needed to pay attention to the values that had shaped the Firm over time for a new generation of consultants.

“We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror.”

Marshall McLuhan

Once we get beyond asking “What is our story?” we also have to know how to tell it.  Books, magazines, and newspaper now seem as useful and convenient as a rotary-dial phone. No one doubts the supremacy of digital delivery anymore, but organizations still have to come to terms with the basic need nurture their communities with a range of meaningful and engaging stories, and that is a chronic challenge.

Museums are in the business of helping create a better-informed citizenry: telling the stories about how our country has evolved and is evolving is part of the leadership for which Canadians expect museums to take responsibility. Time and again, the Canadian public reveals its appetite for knowing not just founding stories and heroic tales but deeper accounts of history, science, and the environment that tell us “how did things get to be as we see them today.”

That brings me back to the historian whose role is not to live in the past but, rather, to understand, contextualize, and leverage experience so organizations see the future.  That backward glance letting people see their unfolding story as a process is not just how to cope with change, but also how to reach the future.

This is part of an ongoing series of articles Bv02 is producing about the reshaping of “the story” online: how content has gone wrong and how to change it. Rob Ferguson is Bv02’s branding and content specialist who focuses on helping clients understand “who are we?” and the impact their unique ideas and content have on developing identity and extending brand awareness. With years of publishing, brand strategy and content development leadership behind him, Rob is helping us develop strategic and authoritative narratives and will inspire BVO2’s dynamic team of storytellers, content creators, and producers through the process of developing new digital experiences for clients so they can effectively and actively engage stakeholders in the lasting purpose of their institution, showing them to be distinctive and uniquely worthy of support.

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