I spent a day this week with my pal Bruce and his merry men at The History Factory in our nation’s capital.
Bruce and I have been friends since the day, about 20 years ago, when he first let me in on what he was up to. He had been working at the Smithsonian where his job was saying “no” to companies who’d asked the museum to pull together historic material to help them celebrate an opening, an anniversary, a retirement, or milestone of some kind. The Smithsonian, big and wonderful as it is, doesn’t do that kind of work. But Bruce saw an opportunity. The History Factory is now a global business.
In our first conversation, Bruce knocked me flat when he said “The past is the springboard to company’s future” at which point a light bulb went on and I said “A-men brother”. So while The History Factory organizes and manages the archives of large corporations, I’m convinced it’s really in the branding business.
Brand stories, after all, are rooted in a company’s past – but for some reason the past embarrasses some corporations. My first job out of school was at J Walter Thompson, then the world’s largest advertising agency. I started there, as a copywriter, and soon found myself working on Ford advertising. As a car enthusiast, I knew the history of the company and its cars fairly well. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that 70 years of Ford history, that included cars hobbyists idolized, was out of bounds. To my amazement I found that Ford was so rattled by it’s ‘tin-lizzie’ past that the famous Ford blue oval logo hobbiests revered, didn’t appear on their cars and was forbidden in their advertising.