Unless you work in the candy industry, you probably didn’t know that M & M’s only became a household name after selling their candy-coated chocolate exclusively to U.S. Servicemen in World War II. When the servicemen came back home, demand for those orange, yellow, and red candies we all recognize skyrocketed. You probably don’t know that M & M’s were the first candy eaten in space, or that there were no red ones between 1976 and 1987, when a bogus study linking red food dye to cancer scared the American public. Would the M & M’s you see at every counter be as famous, or as big a part of everyone’s life if World War II never happened? Perhaps the vast majority of people would have never heard of them, or perhaps they’d know them by a different brand name. While we’ll never know, it makes you wonder. If you think about it, the story of each brand we use and recognize is deeply tied to the historical events that shaped it over its lifetime. Along with a brand’s location or setting, a brand’s history leaves an indelible stamp on how that brand expresses itself, how it grows or shrinks, and how the world around it experiences and recognizes it. Even if no one aside from a brand’s founders knows that history, the events, trends, economic demands, and cultural appetites make a mark nonetheless. And in deeply important ways that contribute to a brand’s story, and even its eventual success or failure.
Brand History Means Context
The context of a brand’s story is not only its place, but also its time. If you’ve done the hard work of figuring out your brand’s identity, values, and core purpose, and if you’ve factored in the ways your brand’s location shapes everything about it, then a final step would be taking note of what’s happening all around you. Consider the recent years that have seen your brand grow, begin, or change course, and ask yourself: What’s been going on in the world? Have there been any major shifts in the status quo? Or is the world ready for one? What’s going on in your world right now? And what’s going on in the industry? What historical context helps define the changes in society, culture, or your industry? How did all these changes get to where they are? Answering these questions should give you a sense of your brand’s historical context… and your impression of recent history prepares you to ponder the follow-up: What does all this mean for your brand? How does recent history, or everything that’s happening today, contribute to your brand’s story and expression? How does it shape the way people think about it or respond to it? It may not be so easy to distill the answers… or to separate how time and history have influenced your brand from how your brand’s geographic location has. But a good way to practice, and no doubt a good exercise in and of itself, would be asking how our own individual histories shape the people we are today.
Starter Questions for Understanding the Past
We’re all shaped by the memories of our own history. No exceptions. How we think about ourselves has a lot to do with the story we tell of what has happened to us, and how we got to the present moment. Our fears, aspirations, and present behavior patterns are often echoes of what worked for us in the past. For organizations, looking back and reflecting on their history is an important component of their brand story… and with a handful of direct, but not necessarily easy questions, that history can be unlocked. When was your brand founded? Why was it founded? If the company has been in business for 30, 50, or 70 years, how has the industry changed? How has the company changed? How did the world change? What were the big, emotional moments in that history, either the successes or the failures, that shaped the way your company operates today? How did you react to big events that happened within your business, or on your team?
Following Memories and Feelings
We’re often influenced heavily in how we think about ourselves by moments of great emotion, the high points and the low points of our lives. Organizations are very much the same. Both individually and collectively, we remember feelings rather than facts. So, looking at a brand’s history, what were the moments of intense feeling? When did you feel like you were at your lowest? And when did you feel like you were at your highest? How did you behave in a moment of thrilling success? And how did you handle a crisis? Often, strong feelings and impressions are tied to major events that impacted the organization, or everyone involved in it. Think of the big milestones in your company history. What was a time that you decided to change? And what was a mistake that you resolved never to make again? What was an opportunity that you’re glad, in retrospect, that you did, or didn’t pass up?
But Your Brand’s History Doesn’t Have the Final Say
Feelings and memories of someone’s history can be incredibly strong. And of course, an individual should not be a prisoner of their own history. But only by becoming aware of the past narrative of our lives can we recognize ways in which the old narrative no longer fits, and generate the awareness needed to start moving past it. Similarly, an organization should not be defined by or held captive by its own history. The history of a brand is not the same thing as the story of the brand. One reason to be aware of your organization’s history is to understand, in greater detail, how that narrative has constrained or restricted its ability to flourish in new circumstances. An organization that survived a crisis by becoming highly secretive, for instance, may be better off becoming more open now that the crisis is over. A company that was once the top in its industry and has since fallen, may thrive best by moving past the narrative of trying to return to a lost golden age. Your history doesn’t determine your future. Nintendo, after all, started as a playing card company. That doesn’t mean it should now dump consumer electronics and go back to their roots. History shouldn’t stop you from making the choice to pivot and do something new. You can dislike parts of your own history, or be embarrassed or ashamed by them, but you need to own your history, and incorporate the truth of the good, the bad and the ugly into a story that leads to the future you envision. If the vision of your history isn’t true, the vision of your future will be a lie.
History is Remarkable
Without history, all you have is the chaos of the present moment and the demands of right now. An awareness of your own history keeps your story anchored for long enough to see how your underlying purposes and goals are playing themselves out. And it’s also a potent reminder of a highly historical fact—your brand itself, what it does, and the impact it has, is remarkable. Like values, purpose, location, and even archetype, history is a vital tool in understanding and unlocking your brand’s potential. And if using history to unlock a remarkable brand identity, a winsome and true brand expression, and a growing impact among customers and the wider world sounds good to you… then you should probably drop us a line. We’re all about a brand’s history, and as B2B experts who have worked with regional and national brands for over a decade, we’re always game to get to know the remarkable story of a brand that wants to share itself. Give us a call, or check out our detailed, step-by-step brand-building book ‘You Are Remarkable’ out now on amazon.com. Happy branding, history buffs!