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How to own your company’s past—before it owns you

September 24, 2020 • Corrie Commisso

Recently, while working on a corporate history web project, my clients  were lamenting the lack of racial diversity in their past and asked if I could make their history appear less “white.”

Well, I can’t invent a person of color on a company’s leadership team from 1918. But I understand where the question is coming from: what’s a company to do with a past that feels out of step with the current social, cultural and political environment?

In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests, brands were tripping over one another to get their messages of solidarity with racial justice movements voiced and heard. My inbox is full of them. And many of those messages sounded suspiciously similar and awkward—like they were at the funeral of some distant relative they didn’t really know and were doing their best to muster some sympathy and kind words. 

Inevitably, here’s what happens: Brand A launches a massive social campaign to push a message about its commitment to diversity and inclusion. Which is fine, until a racist comment a company executive made in 1976 surfaces. Or a former employee comes forward with claims of losing a job based on their sexual orientation. Or someone points out that the company has never employed a single person of color. And suddenly Brand A gets labeled a “virtue signaler”—accused of professing values they don’t actually live by—and their corporate actions seem to prove the label true. 

Back in the day (and by that I mean the days before social media, which some of us…ahem…are old enough to remember), it was easy for brands to omit the less palatable things from their past. Nobody was any wiser. And because it was also easier for brands to stay neutral on issues (Michael Jordan famously quipped, “Republicans buy sneakers, too” when turning down the opportunity to advocate for a Democratic candidate in the early 1990s), a checkered past rarely had a significant impact.

But now that brands are engaging consumers with marketing messages about shoes or mortgage services alongside a daily barrage of political and social commentary, they’re also being forced to engage in those conversations. If there’s one thing social media can sniff out faster than my dog can sniff out the jar of peanut butter I just opened, it’s people (or brands, or marketers) who say one thing and do another. And consumers aren’t cutting brands any slack: Nike, Adidas, L’Oreal, Spotify and Apple have all been taken to task recently for not walking their talk. 

Here’s what I’ve learned from spending a lot of time in client archives: just like people, every company has a past with a skeleton or two in the closet. Bad decisions were made. Questionable correspondence was sent. Societal norms have evolved and progressed, and ideas that may have seemed great at the time haven’t aged well—or haven’t changed at all. Sketchy people did sketchy things in the interest of corporate profits. I learned about one organization whose CEO bribed a local official and then simply skipped town when he got caught. His picture still hangs on the organization’s Wall of Presidents. 

Brand heritage can be a great source of pride and inspiration, but it can also carry risk in a world that’s quick to turn a skeptical eye on corporate messaging. So what can you do to make sure your company’s past doesn’t damage its future?  

Dig up the bones.

Identify the potential trouble spots in your history. Now is not the time to bury the skeletons or pretend that they will eventually disappear. Your corporate history isn’t just a random sequence of events that happened while the world looked on. Your company’s choices created its history. Understanding potentially problematic events in the context of your brand’s backstory, origins, and evolution is the kind of knowledge that gives you the power to take proactive action.

Acknowledge what happened—or didn’t.

“Things were different then.” “It was a different time.” “That was normal back then.”  I get it. Those are true statements. But ending the conversation there is like passing the buck. It allows the company to absolve itself of responsibility for what happened (or what didn’t happen that should have). Rather than being quick to excuse past missteps or write them off as a passive side effect of cultural norms, own up to your choices. Honesty goes a long way toward building trust with consumers. 

Identify what you’ve learned.

Owning a less-than-perfect corporate past doesn’t stop with acknowledging that it exists. “We messed up. Oh, well. (Shrug emoji)” isn’t going to endear you to consumers. Tell people what you’ve learned as a company from your past, so they know you’re not going to repeat the same mistakes in the future.   

Talk about the specific steps you’re taking towards change.

Did you start a new program? Conduct internal training? Hire a consultant or specialist? Are you seeking out diverse individuals and organizations to learn from? Actions speak louder than words, so if you want to amplify your message, highlight what you’re currently doing that proves you’re committed to change. 

It’s easy to hold up a mirror to society and reflect the cultural and social ills that need to change. It’s a lot harder to turn that mirror inward and let it reflect the uncomfortable truths in your own corporate past. But before you engage in that conversation about racial justice, before you talk about your green initiatives, before you blast that social post about how your company was just rated the best workplace for women, make sure you take steps to own your corporate past—before it owns you.

If you’re not sure how to begin that process, we can help. Reach out to our History Factory team for more information about our Brand Heritage Risk Assessment and download the findings of our c-suite survey, “Perils of the Past.”

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