An origin story reveals how a character became the protagonist (or antagonist), usually providing a compelling event which explains their intentions or behavior. Comics and movies use origin stories to explain how characters got their superpowers or why they are supervillains. Recently, entertainment companies have rewritten the origins of their oldest superheroes/villains as a way of keeping their characters current and maintaining fan interest. This is called rebooting the franchise.
Many technology companies have similar sounding origin stories. It often describes how relentless innovators with big visions started in a garage (Hewlett-Packard, Apple) or a dorm room (Google, Dell). It’s the story of a superhero succeeding against a much bigger competitor despite long odds. Call this the modern-day David vs. Goliath.
Some origin stories frame the company as different from others or help it get noticed. In the early 1990’s, a small new company called eBay was having a hard time getting publicity based on founder Pierre Omidyar’s vision of a “perfect market.” As explained in the book ‘The Perfect Store: Inside eBay’, an enterprising PR manager changed the eBay origin story to be that Omidyar built the site so his fiancée could more easily trade Pez candy dispensers. It worked.
Nobody wanted to hear about a thirty-year-old genius who wanted to create a perfect market. They wanted to hear that he did it for his fiancée.
While I can’t recommend companies fabricate their origin stories, a well-told one can serve as the heart of a company’s brand and provide a north star for employees. For example, Northwestern Mutual Life still tells new employees about a train accident with multiple fatalities that happened in 1859, shortly after the company was founded. The claims totaled $3,500 but the company only had $2,000 in cash to distribute. Rather than trying to negotiate, the company took out loans so it could pay the claims in full immediately. This origin story reinforces to employees that policy holders are the highest priority and provides a good sales tool to potential clients.
When companies contact me for marketing advice, the first thing I ask them is to tell me their origin story. Only a few can do this well so it’s almost always a fruitful exercise to crisp up the story and start reinforcing it with employees. Employees can be passionate brand ambassadors and the most effective form of marketing.
Do you know your company’s origin story?