The following article was written by DePaul University public relations grad student Michael Bellino as a final class assignment in researching and writing about an agency studied during the fall term of my agency-client relationship course. Michael was assigned to The History Factory and its founder and former CEO Bruce Weindruch, who pioneered the field of heritage management and transformed corporate America’s use of history. As an ultimate compliment, Bruce Weindruch said, “Michael TOTALLY channeled me. It’s almost scary.”
Here’s Bruce Weindruch’s story as told by Michael Bellino:
An influential client of mine, Barry Deutsch, once gave me an invaluable piece of advice: “Don’t ever sell a product,” he told me. “Sell what you believe. Sell a philosophy.”
History Factory’s guiding philosophy is “Start with the Future and Work Back.” It’s our DNA that acts as a tool for understanding our clients’ current needs and then working backward to help meet them. It’s our way of exploring the question, “What are you doing today to try to get to tomorrow?”
When people ask why I founded History Factory toward the end of the 1970’s, I typically resort to the following: “Well, my son had just been born and I needed a place for a telephone. So, I started a company.”
And while this isn’t necessarily untrue, there is, indeed, a more cultured answer.
The dawn of a new digital era
When I opened the doors in 1979, America was experiencing the first major economic downturn since the Great Depression. It marked the beginning of a changing hierarchy in American business. Organizations downsized. Departments were laid off. Headquarters were being sold. It was disruptive.
But amid this disruption was an archival opportunity. All traditional keepers of historical content were fleeting. Offices were closing and closets were being emptied. There was a fear this historical content would get lost. That’s when we stepped in.
The first two to three years of the business was spent collecting archives. Then, the launch of the personal computer ushered in a new digital era – allowing us to process these archives, unknowingly building a digital content bank. It was an unprecedented age that set us up for success.
Uncover your differentiator
When the economy began to bounce back in ‘82, seemingly every CEO was reading Thomas J. Peters’ and Robert H. Waterman, Jr.’s newly released book, “In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best Run Companies.” CEOs called their communicators asking, “Do we have any stories like that in our history?” And those communicators called us asking, “Do we have any stories like that in our history?”
That was our big “aha” moment.
Organizations use their history to communicate a very current message. That year, the message was “excellence.” They wanted to find examples of excellence in their history. The following year it was “quality, the next was “entrepreneurship.” Thus, the notion “Start with the Future and Work Back” was born.
For our first 10 years, we operated under the name “Informative Design Group” with the mission of infusing history into design to inform. It wasn’t until we had outgrown our office building and needed to transfer our records to a warehouse that my realtor – who also happened to be ex-Washington Redskins linebacker Pete Wysocki – suggested, “What you’re looking for is a history factory.”
The rest was history.
History Factory not only became our brand, but our attitude. We developed our chops as a creative powerhouse following the first dot-com bust in 1990, when new forward-looking companies sought message continuity, longevity and stability. And once the internet browser entered the scene, we took off.
Today, we work with leading, culture-rich brands admired by their peers in a variety of verticals, including financial, insurance, branded goods, sports, consulting and more.
Tell your one-of-a-kind story
The COVID-19 pandemic left consumers yearning for comfort through familiarity, and likely accounts for the rise and maturation of recent nostalgia marketing campaigns into a pop-culture trend amongst Gen Z.
But well before this widespread thirst for yesteryear, we were helping clients extract the maximum value from their history, which, once discovered, became found capital; something intrinsically valuable and uniquely their own. We start by asking the right questions up front:
- What are you doing today that makes you so competitive?
- Who are you trying to reach with your products and services?
- What are your goals, and what do you want to achieve?
- How do you want to be viewed by your clients and the world around you?
Once we receive answers to these questions, we conduct highly targeted historical research with those answers in mind – focusing on creating compelling programs and deliverables that support the strategic objectives our clients just outlined.
Suddenly, our clients possess the tools to craft a story no one else can tell; one that’s authentic and relevant with interesting characters, drama, triumph and meaning embedded within. When properly told, these stories can become a catalyst for transformation and growth that’s a natural extension of a brand’s heritage.
Content is king
Just ask Bill Gates. Over the years, we’ve helped leading global organizations leverage unique content found within their heritage to advance their business agendas, raise brand awareness, engage and inspire employees and spark growth.
The best corporate heritage programs move the needle and yield a return on investment. From creating corporate anniversary programs to archiving and accessing decades’ worth of company assets, we’ve brought our clients’ history to life through historical content.
- Capitalizing on culture: In celebration of Southwest Airlines’ 50th anniversary, we conducted focus groups with employees to better understand how the milestone should come to life according to the people who knew the company best. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, we inspired employees and customers by creating a content bank for the Southwest50.com microsite, two legacy-focused books and exhibits in airports across the country. Nearly 6,000 employees celebrated a hybrid day-of anniversary event on June 18, 2021, while employee engagement on Southwest’s private SWA Culture Facebook page during Southwest’s Birthday Week was up triple digits from the previous year.
- Articulating a centennial vision: We tapped into the NFL’s history of inventing the word “Super Bowl” to conceptualize the “Fantennial” — the official NFL 100th anniversary campaign dedicated to fans. Our Clear Line of Sight™ methodology helped the NFL clearly articulate the brand’s centennial vision, including objectives, audiences and measures of success. We curated several NFL100 initiatives – including Huddle for 100, NFL100 Generations and NFL100 Roundtables — resulting in more than 10,000 stories and 457 million social views of original content. Nearly half of the U.S. population (48%) was aware of NFL100 — the highest ever for an NFL initiative.
Discover a fulfilling career in heritage management
I’ve always had a passion for helping organizations capture and use their corporate memories to address current challenges and achieve future goals; so much so that I don’t feel I’ve worked a day since founding the agency.
And while I’m fascinated by company relics, I find an even greater enjoyment in passing the baton to the next generation of young professionals.
My advice for students and aspiring communicators is simple: Be curious. Be patient. Be passionate. Show interest and a desire to grow. Strengthen your business literacy. Be knowledgeable of everything around you.
Understand what came before you so that you can use it to inform what will come next.
But above all, never jeopardize your values. I’m always reminded of the late, great advertising tycoon Leo Burnett’s farewell address to his company in 1967: “But let me tell you when I might demand you take my name off the door…. when you begin to compromise your integrity, which has always been the heart’s blood, the very guts of this agency….”
Bring your history into the future
History is an interpretive process. It isn’t carved in stone. The facts, names and dates remain the same, but the stories themselves should be continually reinterpreted and told in ways that keep them relevant.
But what’s not up for interpretation is just how valuable history can be. Corporate archives are oftentimes regulated to the basement – literally and metaphorically – to the detriment of the business. Wise executives leverage their past. After all, history is a permanent record of an organizations’ decisions. It can protect valuable trademarks and patents. It helps organizations recruit and retain the best talent available. It can inspire a workforce or act as the foundation for new product development.
Organizations have every right to curate their own history – to start with their vision for the future and work back. The key is to make their history relevant and valuable in the here and now.
Michael Bellino is currently an Account Executive within Zeno Group Chicago’s Corporate Affairs division. He is also in his second year of DePaul University’s PRAD graduate program. You can connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.