Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why Curators and Archivists Make Good Community Marketers

History, it turned out, was the perfect background for community marketing.  Or maybe it was just that community marketing was appealing to a person with a degree in history.

Marketing communities involves leveraging for economic and cultural development the three general types of place-based assets distinct to a particular place:

  • Culture and Heritage
  • “Built”
  • Natural

I don’t just mean the date and event type of history told through documents although that is useful because learning to see patterns and connections - the essence of historical analysis - is also key to marketing innovation and strategy-making.

But also valuable to community marketing are related studies such as:

  • Economics:  history viewed through commercial transactions,
  • Geology:  history told through rocks and physiography,
  • Archeology: history told through artifacts and material remains,
  • Anthropology: history told through societies, languages, and values,
  • Environment: history told through human interaction with the natural world,
  • Genealogy:  history told through family relationships and DNA.

There are others but hopefully these are enough illustration for those who haven’t thought of community marketing as a career or marketers who view it far too narrowly or were taught it only from a commercial perspective.

I’m a little slow.

For all that preliminary background in history, it still took me over half a life-long career to connect those dots.

It also wasn’t until my third startup that I even more formally embedded archives.

Perhaps this is why I was amused to learn recently, the history of my first startup was apparently rewritten exclusive to a much later addition of a word to its name and the second one seems also to have written a revisionist notion of its founding.

Fortunately, should anyone care, I still have personal documents proving my existence there and the roots of each of those organization including their pre-history fingerprints. (smile.)

Frankly, many marketers, even those trained in communications, often seem to play a bit fast and loose with facts and context either because they are too lazy to fact-check using what archives were kept or to make a political statement or even to flatter later executives.

Even more troubling, journalists often pick up these reinterpretations, further contaminating the public record with anecdotal hyperbole.

Thus, the “Research Triangle” is misattributed in a 1957 state brochure as the “brain child” of a later state governor.

And some of us involved in later stages of community turnarounds are flattered with in inaccuracies proclaiming that until our charge these places were a “sleepy backwater,” of that “tumbleweeds blew down empty streets,” or working there was “a death sentence.”

Not true, of course, but that is how history gets polluted.

Part of the problem is that Durham, North Carolina where I finished my career and now live in retirement, while arguably blessed with the deepest, most diverse history of any community, still lacks a full-fledged museum of local history.

This source of resident frustration is indispensable, not just as a cultural amenity but as a touchstone-repository to help newcomers and future generations gain, regain and keep perspective.

Even commercial enterprises, according to Advertising Age, now grasp the importance of “curating, cultivating and preserving the histories of their brands,” not only to inform marketing efforts but because “employees are looking for that heritage and lineage – how they fit into the family tree.”

Many CEOs, according to an article in the Portland Business Journal last summer understand that “the past is a powerful tool in public relations, marketing and branding.”

Or that ultimately they can perpetually “mine the past to recharge the present.”

Dr. Paul Bloom at Yale is often quoted from presentations and papers that “we are obsessed with origin and history…things get value because of their history.”

Consulting archivists at The Winthrop Group, Inc., quote Pendleton’s CEO Mort Bishop as relating “Our heritage is a lot more than a simple matter of using historical materials in marketing…It’s our DNA.”

Others wrote couple of years back in the Harvard Business Review, “A sophisticated understanding of the past is one of the most powerful tools we have for shaping the future.”

A McKinsey executive noted that it is “essential for every one of our partners and colleagues to understand our history and how our values were shaped over time.”

Even Entrepreneur Magazine’s startup-rich content heralds the value this depth can bring to storytelling's role in creating brand value.

So why are so many community marketers pinned under the thumbs of those who don’t get it?

In past essays, I’ve frequently noted research showing that even among visitors who skew more to fantasy activities such as shopping, sports, performing arts or amusement parks, destinations that preserve and cultivate authenticity foremost are by many times over the most appealing.

Yet so many elected officials, enabled by their community’s marketers and propelled by “edifice envy,” have, or are quickly surrendering, the authenticity of their particular places.

Maybe my sense of urgency is because it took half a career to dawn on me, and many places won’t have that luxury.

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