What do Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, HP and Amazon have in common? Nope, it’s not a joke, but you’ll never guess what happens next!
Sorry, bad clickbait joke.
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No, this isn’t a column about giant US tech companies founded by white men of various backgrounds. That’s a story for another day.
So what is it? A fantastic origin myth. Larry and Sergey decided computers would do a better job of indexing the world’s information than humans, and by golly they were right.
Facebook is a remarkable story of a Harvard dorm-room experiment that took over the world, and he’s still wearing a t-shirt.
Microsoft shows you what happens when two enterprising founders recognise there’s money in software, despite IBM’s view the real game was hardware. Amusingly, IBM is now a software and services company.
Apple needs little explanation, but Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak helped cement the idea that great things can begin in a suburban garage. Ditto HP, with Messrs Hewlett and Packard creating an incredibly powerful origin myth that endures to this day — “invent” is embedded in HP Inc. and HPE’s DNA.
Finally, Amazon. Jeff Bezos famously wrote his business plan in a car while on the all-American pioneers’ journey from the East to West coast. Turns out people really do want to buy stuff online, a lot.
The fun thing about the origin myth is that it connects where we are today with the days of yore. It represents a continuous line from the past to the present, an enduring idea that defined a company and underpinned its growth.
The origin myth, therefore, is a symbol of corporate identity.
For the cartoon geeks among us, all of this will sound happily familiar. The origin myth is the back-story, telling us how a superhero gained their superpowers. If Superman hadn’t come from Krypton the world would be a much less safe place, obviously.
So too with our business superheros. I’m not sure that the world would be any more or less safe without them, but it certainly would be very different.
Yet it strikes me that each of these origin myths are almost taken for granted. Anyone in the tech, digital and media worlds absorbs these fables as part of our “industry history 101,” and then we move on — to our peril.
You see, the great temptation with digital marketing is the opportunity to re-write history, or simply tell a different story.
What if your origin myth isn’t “interesting” or, worse, quite terrible? Or what if brand research is telling you the company needs to reposition itself before customers in a way that’s completely out of character?
HP is an interesting case in point. Meg Whitman, quoted in HBR, writes of the company’s turnaround journey:
“I said, ‘What are the core values of this company? Let’s identify what it does really well and do more of that as the anchor for the turnaround. Then let’s make a to-do list of the things to be fixed.’ So we went back to our core founding principles, and the company responded.”
This is a company — now two separate companies in HP Inc. and HPE — that recognised it had strayed from its founding principles and lost sight of the origin myth.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but sometimes in order to go forwards you’ve got to stop and look back to see where you’ve been.
Here’s Meg Whitman again: “It’s very hard to kill founder DNA, and that’s a good thing for HP. Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett have been gone from the company for many years.
“There have been many acquisitions, many changes. But the core values still show through: the ability to do incredible innovation; a passion for customer support and service; giving back to the community. Dave and Bill were social responsibility leaders and environmentalists before those were even terms. We may have fallen on some hard times, but we’re going to double down on those values.”
Time will judge the wisdom of her actions, of course. But when you look across the digital landscape, it’s hard to refute the logic. We live in a socially conscious age where consumers are watching for integrity and honesty — two rare commodities that increase in value with time.
Why? The origin myth. It’s a promise that anchors your company to a point in time, connecting history with the present day reality.
Tell that story well, and stay true to the cause, and you’ll have customers for life.
Mark Jones publishes the Pioneers newsletter. Subscribe today.