CEO of ECHO Storytelling Agency. Trusted by Fortune 500 brands and North America’s most successful individuals to get their stories right.
As a storytelling agency, we’re in the business of preserving the past in service of the future. We’ve always understood the value of maintaining archives, but it was when our office went up in flames that our company mission suddenly became personal.
Much of the damage was irreparable. But the next morning, as we combed through the wreckage, we reminded ourselves that, above all, no one was hurt. The next source of immediate relief—and what allowed us to keep going—was our robust digital archives. Our clients’ irreplaceable keepsakes, along with our project work, were intact. My personal six-word silver lining to it all? “The fire knew what to spare.”
Only because we had identified in advance what was worth saving. Have you?
Treasure Your Archives As Assets
Typically stored on a server, in the corner filing cabinet or in a musty locker, company archives are often stashed out of sight. Employees are wary of venturing into the abyss. All that documentation—spanning products and services, operations and correspondence, personnel and client data, oral histories and memorabilia—often ends up as a mess of cluttered records taking up physical and digital real estate.
The risk of fire or flood aside, might it be time to finally put your archives to use? Here are four reasons why:
1. To Anchor Your Brand Story
A successful brand story is built from the series of events that ignited your company’s founding and expresses how that narrative still drives your purpose today. Crafting an authentic brand story, instead of an overt sales pitch, is hard work—but not if you recognize your archives as a source of storytelling gold.
Your archives are the truest testament to your corporate identity as it has evolved over the years. With even a basic archival program, snippets of history can be threaded together to form corporate lore that shows your purpose in action. Samuel Smallidge, archivist for Converse, quickly realized this when he got to work in 2010. By spotlighting Converse’s heritage, Smallidge explained how “[their] past designs, Brand stories and positions across sport, music, fashion and art play a critical role in how [they] design for [their] future progress.”
2. To Win Trust
Edelman’s latest annual Trust Barometer confirms that trust matters big time to the bottom line. Your archives can help you win that trust from your employees and your customers.
Internally, this is especially relevant during expansion efforts, mergers or baton-passing across generations. The 2010 merger of giants Kraft Foods and Cadbury only materialized thanks to an intranet site full of archival materials, titled “Coming Together,” that honored the parallel paths taken by both to reassure the public that a joint journey into the future was possible. When Patagonia’s archivists feared their company history would vanish as long-time employees retired or passed away, they invited the “company’s oldest friends” to send not just their memories but also their well-worn Patagonia-branded products “home” to be cataloged, exhibited and stored.
But don’t think your archives are only for your old-timers. When new recruits realize that their work today will feed the company archives of tomorrow, they bring a greater sense of pride and belonging to their roles. Employee engagement aside, your archival assets can also deepen connections with your customers. After all, real stories help humanize your company. Which of these is your audience more likely to respond to: the story of that legendary factory employee who invented a new product line, or a macro-level summary of your business goals?
3. To Shape Strategy
As a record of what’s worked and what’s flopped, your archives can also inform your strategic planning for the future. Imagine having access to a bulk of historical intel on product development, innovation strategies, crisis management, responses to economic downturns, succession planning and more. What trends could you forecast? How might this know-how affect employee morale when navigating tough times?
Similarly, how could you leverage proof of your evolution to deepen customer loyalty? When Covid-19 led us into unprecedented times, legacy brands across the world tapped into their heritage and longevity to reassure employees and external stakeholders alike. Companies came out strong with the message: We’ve been through crises before, and you can trust that we’ll get through this one too by sticking to our playbook for how to stay resilient under pressure.
4. To Attract The Right Publicity
Finally, your archives are your arsenal for controlling your brand image across media channels. I mean, who doesn’t love a good “Throwback Thursday” and “This Day in History”?
Nostalgia hits right at the heartstrings, so use your archives to feed the content beast with meaningful stories and delight-worthy nuggets, particularly if you’re celebrating a milestone company anniversary. Entire buzzworthy social media campaigns can be centered on past oddities and novel finds with unexpected backstories. Take the cocktail napkin that started it all for Southwest Airlines, an artifact that forever symbolizes the brand’s conception.
An overlooked benefit of having an archival program is the reassurance of knowing the entirety of your organizational history, including missteps and skeletons deep in the closet. You can avoid being blindsided by PR disasters and sensationalized exposés by knowing and owning every part of your story, the highs as much as the lows.
If you don’t have a corporate archive, building one can seem like a daunting task. But small is better than nothing. Break up the project into incremental steps. Before auditing your assets, define your goals for your corporate archives and determine your selection criteria. Allocate space and consider maintenance and access. Hire an expert if you can. And if you have an archive but it’s disorganized, it can feel just as intimidating to engage your employees and turn it from periphery to participation. But no matter where you’re at in your archive journey, take a small step forward today.
Put your company’s past to work for you. The competitive advantages are waiting.