Why History Matters to Business

Henry Ford once famously said that “History is bunk.” And while Henry may have had a point when it came to mechanics, it certainly doesn’t apply to marketing and brand development.  We often jump into  things without taking the time to understand how populations came to be who they are and how that may shape their interpretations of your product and your brand.  The questions we need to learn to ask to make sense of the seemingly contradictory behaviors in the present are the same questions that historians use to think about the past. History is part of the weave of connections that provide context and meaning.  Knowing a people’s history is crucially important when you want to shape the future of your brand. History isn’t a side-item, it is a tool.

The two main complaints about history is that it is irrelevant to their job and that it is boring. And inevitably, when you ask a marketer or business development person to elaborate on how it is boring, the complaint seems to come back to a question of relevance.  It isn’t uncommon to have a business person to ask how understanding history could possibly help them.  And on the surface it is a fair question. Now, let’s step back for a moment and imagine this situation.  Imagine that you are asked by your company to research an area for possible expansion, a market in which you have no real presence. After looking for other companies that have opened or are operating a similar business in that region.  Of course you ask if it a success or a failure? You ask why it succeeded or failed? But it’s not as simple as looking at procurement models, logistics, ad dollars, etc. To answer these questions, you need some skills that history can provide. Without a solid understanding history and culture, you will inevitably have oceans of data but it won’t mean anything. Why?  Because you won’t have the ability to critically analyze that data and make it make sense. Oh, you’ll be able to speculate what the numbers mean, but you won’t be able to explain why they are what they are and, more importantly, you won’t be able to isolate the cultural variables that will lead to a successful product launch or marketing campaign.

When you understand history, you understand the underlying motivations and socio-cultural structures that shape how your brand is interpreted as it is. You will learn about cause and effect, which in turn leads to learning about how your brand or business will be received. Since history is mainly about what causes the next event or action, people can clearly understand how things are related to one another. For example, if colonialism was a significant event in the history of the country you attempting to enter, it may well manifest itself in how your brand is understood. If your plan doesn’t account for this historical element, there will probably be some people who will take the stand to fight back, possibly forming a vocal “revolution” against cultural imperialism. While we may be inclined to dismiss such language, it is in large part because we, meaning the West, have been the people in power.  We dictated policy and by extension brands and products. These associations are very real in other parts of the world and will shape everything from B2B interactions to permits for selling your products to how an ad campaign will be understood.  Why is Home Depot failing in China? Because of cultural systems that define DIY projects as representing status distinctions and weak individual economic power. Add to that the development of labor roles in Chinese history and the reasons start to emerge. Of course there are more reasons, but the point is that if you understand history as something that has direct, real application in a business context, your brand will be prepared when it enters a given market.

In addition to being armed with knowledge about the people to which you are attempting to communicate and bring into the brand fold, the ability to conduct research is another skill that learning history can provide. How? Because knowing the answers is as important as knowing where and how to find them. For example, if you were to go about researching an area for possible business growth, you would need information about the people, the market, the demand, etc. Learning history requires you go beyond business journals – it means digging through documents people in the desired region have created, looking for the interpretations of a wide range of people and pulling the various elements together into something meaningful and rich in its subtlety. Research becomes a creative act rather than something static and formulaic.

By knowing a bit about what has happened in our world, you are in a better position to account for why things are the way they are, what will happen in the future and how you can prepare your brand to succeed.  You learn to address people in meaningful, sometimes unexpected ways.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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