Early last year, I helped craft a presentation for a gathering of senior managers at a clothing company. Looking for a hook, I asked questions about previous eras when its leaders faced challenges like the ones they face today.
“Oh, you need to talk with our corporate historian,” their head of communications told me.
The historian held the keys to drawer after drawer of artifacts from every era of the company’s existence — sewing machines, product sketches, vintage ephemera, love letters from fans, even the world’s oldest pair of dungarees. It was stuff with a story to tell, and she used it precisely for that purpose. She traveled the world giving presentations that featured these artifacts to illustrate the company’s brand promise through a visceral experience that no brochure or blog post could match.
Given how fashionable storytelling is today, you’d think every market-centered company would have a person like this on staff to manage the collective memory of its brand. But in my experience, not many do, and that’s a shame. Artifacts and stories articulate a company’s identity, purpose, and value to customers and communities in a very real, powerful way. Making these past and present narratives accessible to current and future audiences is an important role because it captures the spirit of the organization and uses that to develop an even stronger brand. This role is so important, in fact, that companies should give it executive-level visibility, authority, and resources.
Who do you hire for this critical function? Certainly you need someone with the research and communication skills to collect, curate, and publish stories and their associated symbols (visuals, audio, video, spoken and written word, and more). But the job also requires a “macro” perspective: the ability to weave historical accounts, cultural practices, and current events into a cohesive corporate canon.
You could think of this role as a “corporate historian,” “official archivist,” or “chief storyteller,” but I prefer “folklorist.” Folklore, in a cultural sense, is the sum total of anecdotes, artifacts, and rituals that unite a group of people — the common language that creates shared meaning. Part journalist, part librarian, and part storyteller, the folklorist is much like the cultural anthropologist who studies the language, myths, and rituals of a society, or the ethnographic researcher who investigates the habits and mind-sets of target audiences. Using similar methods of observation, analysis, and documentation, the folklorist would be responsible for capturing and publishing the oral, written, and visual history of a company and how it serves its constituents — customers, partners, influencers, and employees.
Given the skills and span of responsibility required, this function should sit in the marketing department. Every touch point in the marketing mix — including advertising, executive communication, demand generation, sales enablement, and customer support — benefits from an injection of folklore because stories are a potent vehicle for persuasion. And, of course, marketing is in the best position to integrate the stories into a holistic content management strategy for the organization.
The problem is, organizations’ stories are usually scattered far and wide. R&D and engineering teams know the chain of events that led to important innovations, but those anecdotes remain locked in status reports that rarely reach other departments. Sales teams glean quotes from customer conversations about product impact, yet these testimonials often travel without the richness of scenery and symbols that lend drama to a narrative. Marketing copywriters craft content all day long that converts corporate messages into compelling vignettes fed by insights from social media and market research. But the long view — how the company originated, how its markets evolved, and what lessons it learned along the way — often lives in the memories of veteran employees who may tell their tales to coworkers over coffee but don’t necessarily have a pulpit for broader communication.
These individual story streams don’t converge in most companies. In nearly 25 years as a marketing consultant, I’ve encountered only a few organizations with anything like a folklorist on staff. Those that have one are usually industry titans like IBM, Boeing, and GE, whose category-defining legacies warrant historic preservation; consumer-focused brands like Nike, Levi Strauss, and Coca-Cola, whose many cult followers justify the creation of a tourist destination; or startups with an ambition to build a lasting culture, like Zappos or Airbnb. (Perhaps not coincidentally, these companies also have created brands that are highly valued in the marketplace and beloved by their customers.) But a corporate folklorist’s work goes beyond documenting innovations, entertaining visitors, or even building a culture. It’s also about promoting a common understanding of the organization’s values and purpose.
That’s a goal all businesses should have.Go to Source