A company’s history
is a strategic asset


Show caption
Retail giant ICA keeps its historical archive at the Centre for Business History in Stockholm. The archive is rich with people, stories and events. Which are told, for instance, on the historical website ica-historien.se, in four historical magazines and in numerous newly produed historyfilms.

Every organization has a history that is unique to its business. When used properly, it becomes a strategic asset that creates value. All businesses can use its heritage to grow – and it’s called history marketing when they do. Anders Sjöman from the Centre of Business History in Stockholm shares more on how companies can leverage the power of their own history.

A company’s history can be used to build its brand and give credibility to its communication. When told internally, it can energize the organization. Heritage can also help companies to meet change and handle risk. Not bad for an asset that is created almost by accident, just by running the business. Effective uses of history – or history marketing, as it is called – turns heritage into a strategic asset.  An asset we define as:

History marketing is when a company or an organization uses and works with its own authentic story or historical context.

There are many ways to tell a business history. Over the years, we at the Centre for Business History has helped companies create historical websites, movies, anniversary books, coffee table books, historical exhibitions, theater plays, installations, seminars, corporate museums – and much more. There are as many ways to share an organization’s story as there are reasons to do it – which in itself shows the power of leveraging corporate heritage.

An active use of history works well with modern concepts such as content marketing and corporate storytelling – but it’s important to never forget that effective history marketing always comes from an authentic and verified history. We’re not making up a background story to suit our current position. And really, why should we, when the actual history always is so much more rich with vivid details and telling examples?

Granted, we’ve all sat through unbearable narrations of history. A poorly told history is often just a series of anecdotes, haphazardly put together, or a collection of events strewn on a timeline. A well-told story, on the other hand, is rich with telling moments and engaging examples. What makes them telling is that they reflect and support today’s situation. That’s why effective history marketing is not just about knowing your past, but about understanding your current situation and knowing where you want to go. Because it’s only when you know where you’re aiming, that you can truly identify the events from the past that best support (or contrast) with today’s ambitions. Good history marketing always starts with the future and works backwards. (Bruce Weindruch, founder of The History Factory in Washington D.C., wrote a book on the approach and we couldn’t agree more with what he says there.)

The “Future first”-approach ensures that the history you tell is grounded both in the past and the present. It also sharpens your thinking about why the history is told and for whom.  Is your history primarily meant to help recruitment, facilitate a product launch or prepare for a reorganization? Is the history told primarily for coworkers, future employees, customers, partners or politicians? The audiences and the reasons may be many, but the more clearly they are put, the easier it is to recognize which of the many threads from the past that is worth pulling forward. In the end, stories from the past are after all meant to help guide today’s actions.

All organizations create documents and artifacts that show what they did, why they decided to do it and how they carried it out. These documents are created physically, or – more commonly these days – are directly born digitally. Practically, we’re talking about minutes and decision-making summaries from board and management meetings. About project plans, staff documentation, leisure activities, correspondence, ad campaigns, client magazines, quotations, financial accounts, patents, blue prints, business deals – and much more. It’s often about personal stories and testimonials, transcribed from interviews with company leaders and long-timers. And it’s always about photos, video and audio, showing products, places and all the people that over time built the organization.

In its most unstructured form, a company’s historical material is spread out across many locations and people. Unless the business has already created a well-structured corporate archive, rich in content and easy to access. An organization has also often left traces in other archives, both private and public ones. Not having a structured archive of its own should therefore not stop any business who wants to start working with history marketing. Authentic source material can always be found.

At the Centre for Business History we group all benefits that history marketing gives an organization into three groups. We say that an company’s history helps it to:

  • Build brand.
  • Strengthen the organization.
  • Handle risk and change. 

Please contact us if you want to discuss how your organization could be using its history as a strategic asset!