The ubiquitous ‘founding myth’ in American branding… and how to create yours
Many people don’t know that Silicon Valley has a birthplace; a precise one, in fact: 367 Addison Avenue, Palo Alto, California. It was there, in 1938, that two former Stanford University chums, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, started their electronics company. Bill was in California, eager to do his own thing. Dave was working back East at General Electric and had just married his college sweetheart, Lucile. But Bill and Dave wanted to work together, so Dave took a leave of absence from GE and drove with his newlywed wife out west, where Bill had rented a small house with a garage. Dave and his wife would stay in the house, Bill would sleep in the garage on a cot. They didn’t have much else… Dave and Lucile brought a used drill press with them in the rumble seat of their car.
The garage was a mere 12×18’, but the landlady allowed the eager partners to use it as a workshop. A year later, they developed their first product: An audio oscillator used by sound engineers. They also had their first client: Walt Disney Studios.
The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. In the coming decades, Hewlett-Packard would grow to be one of the largest technology companies in the world. (The order of Dave and Bill’s names, by the way, was settled by a coin toss. There was a 50-50 shot the company could have been Packard-Hewlett.)
And that little garage in Palo Alto? In the early 1980s, HP bought the site and restored it to its accurate and mythological 1930s glory. In 1987, it was registered with the State of California as a historical landmark and officially declared the “Birthplace of Silicon Valley.”
I found this story very compelling, but it gave birth to a nagging question: What is it with stories of businesses starting in garages?!?
That’s something many marketers, historians and biographers call the founding myth… the story of how something successful got its start. Founding myths have their roots in origin stories—the folklore and myths of culture and religion.
We humans are into stories. We need them. They help us give meaning and order to the seemingly chaotic randomness of life. Stories have structure—with a beginning, middle and end—and that predictability brings comfort.
Throw on top of that the American experience and perspective, and you get a mash-up of the origin story and the American Dream… hence, the founding myth.
Every founding myth is a little different, but there are certain elements common to many of them:
Humble beginnings. We hear the garage story an awful lot. Walt Disney Studios started in one, as did Mattel, Apple, Wham-o and many others. The garage is a natural birthplace for American ingenuity, because it’s where you make or fix things. It’s also practical (another trait we Americans love)—you don’t have to go scouting for some expensive location, because it’s right outside. The garage is not the only humble place of origin, though. A dorm room will do, too (birthplace of such companies as Dell and Facebook).
A philosophy, vision, calling or mission. EVERY founding myth tells of a person or people wanting to create something, solve a problem or do things better somehow. Steve Jobs, for instance, wanted to bring real computing power into people’s homes. They key to the founding myth is that the philosophy or vision is a driving force—one that propels everyone, even through…
Overcoming obstacles. For any tale to be interesting, we need conflict of some sort. In the Facebook founding myth, it’s the struggle between Mark Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss twins, who claimed to have had the original idea for the platform. Disney struggled to get financing for his crazy idea of full-length motion picture cartoons. But, our heroes had a vision, and nothing stopped them from achieving their dream.
The truth of the matter…
When you really look at how a lot of entrepreneurs and their brands got started, the romantic founding myth may be true, but it leaves out a lot. Steve Jobs, for example, worked at Atari and through that, found people willing to fund him. Walt Disney had been a working artist for other companies before he broke off on his own. Most successful entrepreneurs work for others first, learn the ropes, find and nurture the right connections and secure proper financing. But no one wants to read a story about venture capitalists meeting in a Hilton somewhere.
Something about the founding myth taps into the American psyche. When we hear the tales of people who have a big idea, start humbly, and work hard until they reach fantastic heights, it makes many of us think, deep inside: Why not me?
Here are some tips for crafting your brand or company’s founding myth…
How to tell it. Think story. Give it a beginning, middle and “where it is now.” You want to show the meteoric rise, but one, important caveat: Don’t tell too tall a tale. These days, it’s easy for people who are far too interested to find out the more unseemly truth. You can romanticize, to a degree and perhaps for some dramatic effect, but be careful. eBay told a founding myth that its creator wanted a better way to trade and sell the PEZ® dispensers he so loved. The whole thing was made up by a PR guy, and people found out. In reality, the founder just wanted to make an online marketplace, but that story was deemed too dull.
Where to tell it. Many companies and brands now use video, complete with retro photos and footage, to bring their story to life. Others use interactive timelines, downloadable PDFs and more. Most commonly, though, you’ll find a company history on the “about us” section of its website. Social media is a popular medium for sharing little nuggets of a company’s history, too.
Connect the story. Use your founding myth as the seeds for your company or brand’s current vision, culture or mission. It’s a great way to attract the right recruits, too.
A compelling founding myth sets the stage for your company or brand. It is the opening scene that pulls people in, tells them about you, what you’re about, what you stand for, and about your success. Tell it well, they’ll keep watching, and even retell your story for you.
– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group