More and more companies activate their own history in their marketing and business development. Whether it’s called “history marketing” or ...

How business history can make great content

More and more companies activate their own history in their marketing and business development. Whether it’s called “history marketing” or “heritage management”, the trend is growing. In this guest column, Anders Sjöman from the Centre for Business History in Stockholm reflects on the development – and gives a number of “history marketing” examples from Sweden and abroad.

On the door to the IKEA archives hangs a sign. ”This is why we need history at IKEA” it says, followed by eleven points. You can also read ”history provides context”, ”history gives goodwill” and ”history makes employers interesting”. The last point sums up all the others: ”History strengthens the brand”. You can’t express in a better way the benefit that companies enjoy when they actively care for and build on their history.

At the Centre for Business History, we notice that more and more companies follow IKEA’s lead and use the power of their own story. To them, their own history is the best content they can have, regardless if they work with marketing, organisational communication or business development.

We see that ”history marketing” as a way of working is gaining momentum both in Sweden and abroad.

Business history builds credibility

Of course, all companies don’t work with their history every day. But by putting a ”since” underneath the company name, the brand gets credibility. For example, Hästen’s beds (”since 1852”) or Ditzinger’s bed clothes (”since 1854”).

”Established” works pretty well, too. ”Lisa Elmqvist – est. 1926” shows how long they’ve served food in Stockholm. If you don’t think the company is old enough, you can always use the birth year of the founder (hello Bondelid, ”Authentic since 1956” and Katrin Zytomierska’s ”Clean Eating, Est. 1977).

If it comes to that, I think it’s better that you stand up as a young company, showing that you’re already proud of your history: ”Happy Socks – est. 2008 in Sweden.”

The importance of business history

But history is a lot more than just years. A company’s history entails people, events and the business deals that created the company of today. Throughout history, you can follow the impact the company has had on its surroundings – but you can see how the world has developed and forced businesses to develop. There are stories of hardship, drastic decisions, major success, monumental failures – and about what they’ve learned every step of the way.

To those businesses that choose to look at these stories as a way to move the company into the future, there is a number of different ways to tell their story. Here are a few examples.

One of the world’s most lavish business museums

Source: ©Daimler AG.

The car giant Mercedes-Benz in Germany has an open physical archive, a historical web site – and of course one of the world’s most lavish company museums.

Inspiring product development

The Austrian crystal maker Swarovski uses its company archives for product development, visit activity and as a source for the twenty-ish exhibitions that are constantly on the road between different places, among other things. The corporate archive is elegantly summed up in this mini film.

A business historian

Levi Strauss in San Francisco has a visitor centre in case you happen to be there – but also an ongoing online newsfeed from the company’s own historian. Not to mention all the work that’s carried out by the PR department, based on the history. As an example, there is the recent Levi’s CommuterX Jacquard: an ancient jack design, but with touch technology built into the fabric.

“Now everyone thinks I’m a shoe”

Adidas in Germany builds on the founder Adi Dassler’s collection, with one sample from each shoe model. Today’s shoe developers can go back in time and look at it. And if you can’t visit the exhibit, you can always visit Adidas Archive on the web.

Online, you don’t only look at the shoes, you can also hear from those people who have lent their names to the shoe models. A personal favourite of mine is the Stan Smith film: ”I used to be a tennis player. Now everyone thinks I’m a shoe.”

Travelling exhibitions and “ESB stories”

Ireland’s Electricity Supply Board (ESB) tells their story in film, online and with a travelling exhibition that appears at most festivals held in Ireland. During these events, they encourage Irish people to share their own “ESB stories”. 

To not bore you completely, I’ll skip all the jubilee books and business monographs that companies worldwide distribute. Instead, I’d like to add that the number of company museums is growing in Sweden and abroad, often for businesses where geography is extra important for the work culture and brand.

Volvo Museum is located in Torslanda outside of Gothenburg, IKEA Museum lies in central Älmhult, on top of a number of other world-famous brands that have their own museums, where they showcase their history to the rest of the world.

Summary

The companies that decide to work with their history do it for both internal and external reasons, both to strengthen employees and the relationship to the customer:

  • Internally, working actively on a company’s history can be a way to ”pick the culture off the walls” and make it visible, almost sustainable, for all the people who work there. Not the least, new employees who quickly want to understand what kind of place they’re working at. Give them a movie, a site, a book, a podcast, whatever, as long as you’re explaining why the company looks and acts the way it does.
  • Externally, towards the customers, the companies’ own – and unique! – stories are one way to keep and gain new customers. If your offer is similar to your competitors (hello, fashion industry’s mid-segment), your history can be the one thing that makes you stand out.

These companies recognise that their history carries value and they work to realise that value. How to convince those who still don’t think that a company’s history gives something for today’s communications, is the subject for another text.

This is a guest article written by Anders Sjöman, VP Communication at the Centre for Business History