How businesses can use their history and their community’s history for marketing

History Smiths

Harvard University has an entire library dedicated to business history. It’s the Baker Library, located on the Harvard Business School campus. It’s a fabulous place, filled with fascinating information and experienced librarians. As a historian and someone who has always lived in historical communities, I am often struck by how very few people “do” business history. In Salem, Massachusetts, where I live, the National Park Service does a great job on the waterfront talking about maritime trade and what that business meant to Salem and the nation. To help tell the story, they use their replica 18th-century ship, Friendship, a warehouse where imported goods were stored for weighing and measuring, the Custom House where financial and legal transactions took place, a dry goods store where items were sold, and the home of America’s first millionaire, Elias Hasket Derby, where the results of wealth gained from maritime trade are on display. Great stuff!

But what about today’s business?

Some older businesses, especially those located in historical communities, know when they were founded and they will celebrate their anniversary in some way. But the “celebration” is usually limited to a new tag line for the letterhead or advertisements. They really could go a lot further!

Soucy Insurance Agency in Salem, Massachusetts, for example, turned 100 years old a couple of years ago. It’s a family owned business that is still owned by the same family. Instead of just adding a tag line or throwing a party, the owner paid for thorough research on his family and business, created a lobby display and brochure, added a history section on his company website, and published his story (with great historical photos) in local newspapers. History Smiths did this work, and it was a pleasure!

What a great idea! If you had to choose an insurance agency, wouldn’t you respond more to a company that presents this kind of corporate personality? I sure would.

When a company understands and promotes its history, its efforts really do add value. Its historical story strengthens the emotional bond it has with its customers, which is what every business wants.  

Even if a business isn’t 100 or more years old, it can still celebrate milestones — today, even five years is an accomplishment! And this business could think beyond its own history and ask questions like: • What is the history of my industry? • How does my business fit into that history? • What does my industry mean to my community? • What does my business mean to my community? The business could work with its local historical society or public library to find answers to these questions, and publish an article in the historical society’s newsletter. It could sponsor a talk on the subject, create the kinds of materials Soucy Insurance did, and send information to history- and industry-related organizations and websites locally, statewide, and beyond. It could really use the anniversary to call attention to itself.

People who live in a historical community LOVE their local history. They also tend to be well educated and well off.

A business that is in touch with its history — and how its history factors into the community’s history — would impress these people and attract new customers. The business would raise its stature and set itself apart from its competitors. It would certainly get my attention, and my business. I really do think that business history deserves a lot more “press” than it gets. After all, the wealthiest nation in the world was created by thousands of people who built businesses for centuries. I find the changes in industry, technology, population, and so on fascinating. I also think it’s fun to look at the same industry then and now — banking, insurance, the law, retail, restaurants. What has changed and why? And then, what hasn’t changed?

It’s fun stuff, and I would love to see more businesses embrace history and teach us all something we don’t know.