Select Page

Last year, there were over 850 million visits to museums in the United States alone.

That’s a lot of people interested in learning something new.

Or maybe, it’s a lot of people who simply enjoy a good story. Museums, if you haven’t noticed, are storytelling machines. They tell us where we come from, who we are, and what we are surrounded by. We gawk at stunning art, mourn at exhibits about war, and smile at interactive science displays. We relate to what we see, hear, and feel. Done correctly, we emerge from the museum affected in some way.

If attendance numbers are any indication, people are awfully fond of that.

I learned this lesson in University, where I studied both History and Communications. As I dabbled in both fields, I was amazed by how easily and dramatically heritage organizations could connect with audiences. They knew which stories to tell. They had decades of great anecdotes and artifacts in their arsenal. They could find fascinating content, make it relevant, add entertainment value, and set it loose.

The result was an emotionally engaged audience, many of whom were willing to buy tickets or even donate to the organization.

Organizations outside of the “arts and culture” sector could learn from a great deal from this content model. As buzzwords like nostalgia marketing and “trust-building” take centre stage, it’s a good time to look at how history can be used to engage audiences. We care about stories. We know history sells. So the question for your organization is this: Could our archives be a content goldmine?

Here are a few ways companies have leveraged their history for some serious marketing impact.

Tours and Branded Experiences

Imagine consumers paying you to consume your advertising and build a relationship with your brand. This is the reality for companies who have chosen to create tourist-friendly spaces. The Wonderful World of Coca Cola, Hershey Park, the Louisville Slugger Factory…these places are full of photo ops, emotionally engaging exhibits, and (of course) product samples.

The backbone of these exhibits and tours is the creative repackaging of historical information – who started the company, how they chose the location, and the trials and triumphs they faced. Once visitors connect with the story behind the brand, they are handed a sample of the product. Boom. That is how fans are born.

World of Coca Cola - Atlanta GA (photo by Josh Hallet) World of Coca Cola – Atlanta GA (photo by Josh Hallet)

Older brands have the advantage here, provided they know how to leverage a storied history. But don’t count newer brands out – they can still use historical anecdotes around their location, the founding family, or the product itself to build credibility and intrigue. The trick is having the right team behind your scripts and exhibits, and making sure your guides know their stuff.

Throwback Social Media Content

Have you heard of #ThrowbackThursday or #TBT? If your brand has history worth sharing, these hashtags might be your new best friend. The possibilities are endless – a faded photo of the first location, a snapshot of your original menu, or a wedding photo of the founding couple. Throwback Thursday posts are a popular way to connect people with your brand story.

Along with these throwbacks, you may want to include business milestones in your social media calendar. These can be a great way to engage your audience. However, they can completely bomb if they appear selfish, confusing or hyper-promotional. The secret is a simple one: Successful throwback posts always tell an engaging story.

Try it. Plainly mention the anniversary of a favourite product. Don’t add a visual. Cover your post with branded hashtags. I guarantee you’ll get very little interaction (because who really cares?).

On the flip side, try offering a fun anecdote on the product’s inception (even something as simple as “We weren’t sure it would work, but you loved it!” or “We created this after months of listening to you plead for xyz”). Make it relevant and entertaining. Show your community that this is their milestone, tooA visual can add even more social media juice and turn your post into a conversation-starter. From there, you can connect your audience to a contest, link them to content on your website, or funnel them to an anniversary sale.

For example, check out this #TBT post from Wendy’s. In one tweet, they showcased their history, referenced their customers’ relationship with the throwback, and – BONUS! – sprinkled in their trademark humour. Gold.

(That said, I’m still waiting for them to post these hilarious old training videos. Yeah. You’re welcome for that.)

Utilizing a Nostalgic Look & Feel in Advertising

Is it just me, or does it feel like big companies introduce a new brand look & feel every three hours? While these overhauls often feel frivolous, keeping up with changing times can be a good idea…when done correctly, of course.

But remember, there’s a difference between updating your style and completely forgetting the emotional value of your old look & feel. Keep the old wins in the back of your head. Maintain creative control of successful advertisements from the past. After awhile, outdated ads can evoke nostalgia, comfort, and trust. Tie it to today, and you could have a winner.

For example, take a look at this great clip Land Rover created using a classic magazine ad:

And let’s not forget this 2015 Coca Cola television spot (I know, second reference to them, but they’re kinda my #brandcrush). When the Toronto Blue Jays made the playoffs for the first time in 22 years, Coca Cola put a modern twist on their original Blue Jays championship ad. The result? Pretty much everyone was talking about it at the water cooler the the next day, and the brand got a hat tip from the national media. Not bad.

Connecting Old Content with New Trends

The best gift you can give to your content strategist is access to your history and archives.

And the best gift you can give to yourself is bringing in a content strategist who knows what to do with that information.

Old newsletters? Read them all. Meeting minutes? Organize them. Old photos? Digitize, digitize, digitize. You never know what is going to happen in the news and culture. Being able to greet it with “Hey, our brand has been here before!” makes your throwbacks more than interesting. It makes them relevant.

To do this right, you need a heaping spoonful of tact and common sense. Capitalizing on news of tragedies or celebrity deaths is inappropriate, unless your brand has a direct association with the story. For example, the Star Wars franchise was right to organize a tribute to Carrie Fisher when she passed away; Cinnabon should have avoided the topic.

As a brand, it’s a good idea to stay in your lane – but when news breaks that is in your lane, knowing the goods in your archives can help you get great content out quickly. Law firms can meet new legislation with unique insights and past successes. Farmers can reflect on historic seasons when unusual weather hits. In my experience, you never know when opportunity will arise. After WestJet released its viral Christmas video in 2013, I published an article about their prior good deeds. The well-timed piece got thousands of social shares. Why? Because relevance + good storytelling + emotional connection is a magic combination.

Unsurprisingly, those winning stories often live in your archives.

How Can I Find the Stories in My Organization’s History?

As a content marketer trained in archival research, here is the process I would recommend to clients:

  1. Figure out the big picture. It all starts with understanding the organization’s history as a whole. How has your sector evolved? Where were you when changes were taking place? How did you showcase your values throughout the years? Your brand’s history is part of a larger story, and understanding these trends is key. Be sure to include research outside of your own archives in order to fully understand the role your organization or industry played in community life.
  2. Conduct a creative content analysis.  Find and digitize the interesting things which live in your archives. A historically trained content strategist can read through old newsletters, minutes, and adverts to find content opportunities. Interview people who have been with the organization for a long time to humanize the data. Make a calendar of key milestones, develop content ideas based on interesting findings, and catalog your archival materials so you can easily find relevant pieces in the future.
  3. Build, build, build. Social media content, blog articles, newsletters, tours, campaigns…once you know which stories you have to tell, it’s time to translate that into meaningful and exciting content your audience will love.

The Importance of Storytelling – and Why History Matters

I would love to write an article on why storytelling is important, but that article has already been written. You can find it here and here and here and here and oh, a thousand other places. If you’ve ever sold anything to anyone, you’ve probably unlocked the power of the story.

The question isn’t whether or not stories work. We know they do. The question is which stories work.

I bet if you asked a room of marketers that question, you would get the same buzzwords back: Authenticity. Emotional impact. Relevance.

All of it means the same thing: A good marketing story shows people who you are in a way that matters to them. Yes, I said shows people. You need to give them examples. You need to make those examples meaningful and trustworthy. You need to tell stories about how your past connects to their past…and their present.

The historical content collecting dust on the shelf could be the key to making that connection.