Using History in Business

From stories like these, we can draw not only inspiration but also some good ideas. And every industry, every company, every nonprofit, has stories like this in its past, if we just take the time to dig them up.
            A glance at the history of the airline industry reveals it to be one of the most fascinating of all industries. The bravery of the pioneers – heck, the bravery of the early customers – is amazing. Airline advertising of the 30s speaks to the adventure, romance, and excitement of high-speed, long-distance travel. And yet today most of our airlines have no sense of history. Their marketing is an extension of the office, with the same muted blues and subdued grays of life at the Fortune 500. If they looked back to the railroads even for a moment, they might give key flights evocative names like “California Zephyr” or “The Houston Rocket.” Would rekindling the romance of travel be a winning business proposition? Who knows? Could it be much worse than the dismal service (and profit) performance of most airlines today?
If the hotel industry took a few moments to look back fifty years, they’d see how hotels advertised themselves with beautiful luggage labels, which today are collector’s items. An idea worth reviving? Why not?
Any study of history and of changing consumer preferences indicates that many ideas of old recycle back to us. Hewlett-Packard is running TV ads that hark back to its beginnings in a garage in Palo Alto. Chrysler is beginning to find design inspiration in the past – look at the best-selling PT Cruiser. I believe it is only a matter of time before we see fins on cars again, and perhaps even the return of the full-sized traditional station wagon. Convertibles have already come back in force.
I understand that Procter and Gamble is one of the few companies that actively looks backward at its own history, and even reviews decisions of old to see what can be learned from them. Disney perhaps understands the recycling of history best of all, as it brings back classics like Snow White every few years. Bravo! 
What was your industry like in the 30s? What products did your company make 50 years ago – or ten years ago? When was the last time you scanned your old ads or catalogs? Could you even lay your hands on your company’s first annual report, or the marketing strategies that made your company famous in the 60s? What did the founders of your museum, college, hospital, or candy company have in mind? What can be learned from them? Can they help us differentiate in today’s market?
Look backward first, then look forward. But now it is time to look North, South, East, and West.
 
 

Try These

¨      Look around in your organization or industry for the person who knows its history. (In my experience, there is almost always someone like this.) He (or she) may be weird, nerdish, old, or eccentric. But you can learn from him. Pump him for all he knows (he’ll love it). Use him as a resource for your own growth.
¨      Look at old copies of Fortune magazine. In each issue, try to find at least one great but forgotten business idea. How could this idea be recycled in a new form for today’s business world
¨      Study some aspect of your local history. Pick a thread and follow it. Learn about one of more of the following: the history of the most prominent local hotel or park; the biography of the person your city is named after; who owned the land where your house is located 100 years ago, and what it was used for; who decided where the local airport would be; the story of the first radio station in your town.
¨      Who were the largest companies in your industry 30 years ago? Which ones are the largest today? What happened to those that faded? How did the new leaders rise to prominence? Are there lessons they could learn from the leaders of the past?
¨      You may have heard of Lambert Field (an airport) in St. Louis. You have almost certainly heard of former pharmaceutical giant Warner Lambert. Did you ever wonder if there was a link? What was the basis of the company’s success? – Listerine! Find another such link in your life and learn all you can about it.
     

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