November 30, 2017 • Caelin Niehoff
How is the American Antiquarian Society, one of the country’s largest and oldest preservers of rare books and broadsides, connected to tattoo artists?
Well, if you scroll through the society’s Instagram account, you’ll find a visual treasure trove of nostalgia: a digital vault of eighteenth-century ephemera, including a woodcut print of cats for an 1866 almanac and a lithograph of a Long Island flounder for the 1842 New York Geological Survey. It’s these images that captivate the society’s most unexpected audience, drawing droves of inked individuals to the archive looking for a piece of history to inspire their work. For the society, its heritage content allows it to collaborate with an unlikely stakeholder. That’s the power of the past. It connects people, from librarians to tattoo artists, and often in unexpected ways.
If the case of the American Antiquarian Society seems like an anomaly, it isn’t. Nor do academic institutions hold a monopoly over heritage-rich content and its ability to motivate people. Corporations can leverage their pasts to connect and collaborate with stakeholders right now. In this blog, we’ll explore three ways organizations can use history to make meaningful and personal relationships with stakeholders by using artifacts, stories and experiences inspired by their heritage.
Some companies have well-established archives, other have empty attics. No matter the state of your organization’s archival catalogue, you can use historic objects to bring people together.
One tactical option that uses artifacts to connect and collaborate with stakeholders is to engage customers in product treasure hunts. Van Cleef & Arpels used this strategy in its #MissingPreciousPuppy campaign, which asked audiences to “go to their grandmother’s jewelry boxes” and search for the lost member of its mid-century menagerie.
The campaign used social media to connect younger consumers to the brand’s heritage as a luxury jeweler, while helping the company’s staff pursue a rare artifact. The puppy is still missing, but the company was able to galvanize industry press and energize audiences online. As an initiative, the effort also reaffirmed Van Cleef & Arpels’ use of heritage in its business, which helps the brand differentiate product offerings from other jewelers. Its website features historic orders for empresses and princesses alongside the option for customers to customize a one-of-a-kind piece in the present. The historic orders stories provide evidence of the brand’s history of personalization and unique marketplace position.
When using objects to draw connections and encourage collaboration, don’t be afraid to let your audiences co-curate the content. There’s a difference between letting someone else tell your story and giving stakeholders the freedom to reinterpret your brand within a contemporary context.
The American Writer’s Museum in Chicago exemplifies this collaborative approach. A portion of the museum’s “Capturing Stories” exhibit takes photographs of writers by Art Shay and asks viewers to write in the captions. A plethora of creative copy unfolds, otherwise static documents enable the action at the heart of the museum—writing, and black and white photographs become memorable memes. The museum’s strategy allows individuals to connect the images with popular culture and individual experiences, making the pictures inherently more relevant and personal for viewers.
Just as tech companies learn from a culture of constant iteration, your organization can connect and collaborate with stakeholders by engaging them in continuous storytelling about where the company has been and how it envisions its future. Storytelling is championed by marketers and managers as a means of making a message stick. While this is true and tried use of stories, the art of narrating a company’s story is too frequently delegated to a single individual. A CEO can use stories to invigorate employees, but that shouldn’t deter organizations from participating in collective and inclusive storytelling platforms. Organizations often wait until it’s too late to take on oral history programs, prolonging their investment until the end of an era or the terminus of an executive’s tenure, and seldom do companies have the foresight to ask the new hire or middle manager what they think.
One way to use storytelling to connect employees with one another is to build a comprehensive organizational oral history program. By engaging your colleagues, you can spark collaboration, encourage mentorship and knowledge sharing, and gather information about the organization, all while allowing employees to build a more holistic, shared narrative. Oral histories have the potential to connect board members, leadership teams, alumni and new recruits. Interviewers and facilitators can guide conversations around a particular issue, or you can turn the mic over to employees in the form of story booths and story-gathering sessions.
Encouraging people to talk about personal experiences allows organizations to preserve their past while educating their target audiences. Think about the total years of combined experience your employees share. Give your employees access to those memories, those lessons learned and mistakes made. By asking employees about the company’s history and the role they’ve played in creating that story, you can avoid the “I had no idea we did that before” phrase commonly exchanged between cubicles.
photo credit: The Communications Network
For brands, moments are powerful. They provide the time and space needed to connect and collaborate with stakeholders. Brands can use heritage content to craft and curate these moments. Stanford professor Chip Heath and his Duke University Senior Fellow brother Dan Heath explore these connections in their recent book, The Power of Moments. Their analysis unpacks how companies can craft memorable moments by identifying the elements at the heart of “powerful defining moments,” including “connection.” By bringing people together, you are, as Chip and Dan say, telling your audience that a moment is important and real. “We’re in this together. … And what we’re doing matters.”
Heritage can inspire company-wide connection points, whether an anniversary celebration or recognition of a major milestone in the company’s timeline. To make the most of these gatherings, Chip and Dan recommend connecting audiences to “a larger sense of meaning.” There is no better place to look for meaning—to look for your brand’s purpose—than your organization’s past. What is at the core of your company’s character? What has historically driven employees’ passions and successes? Are you leading an organization with more than a hundred years of shared purpose? Now that’s a larger-than-life sense of meaning.
An appreciation for the past can also help elevate (another defining characteristic of memorable moments) and differentiate experiences from the everyday. Take for instance how airline companies are using nostalgia to create more memorable experiences by giving a nod to distant memories of air travel. These airlines recognize that travel can be special. They’ve decided to look to their past to help them connect with their customers through extraordinary experiences.
Organizations looking to use heritage to connect and collaborate with stakeholders should consider the following links when unearthing and sharing their organization’s history:
What are the social imperatives that have historically connected you to your audience?
Do you and your audience have a history of shared strategic objectives?
Do you and your audience share a longstanding presence in a particular geographic place?
Are you able to ask your audience, “Remember when?” or “Remember that time?”
Where did this all begin? Are you and your audience bound by those beginnings?
Organizations will be surprised by how their past can have a personal impact on someone. Corporate archivists and communicators should prepare to be both bewildered and delighted by how audiences personalize and reinterpret historic materials in the present moment.
Heritage will help you connect and collaborate with your target audiences. It can also help you expand your tribe, one tattoo artist at a time.