Rethinking the company history

Say goodbye to the interactive timeline. Now there are simpler and better ways to tell the company’s story online, writes Jonathan Holt.

As a type of communication, the company history is almost as old as the company itself. And like all old stories, this one needs constant reinvention if it is to stay useful and relevant.

When done well, an online history can add meaning behind the company’s reputation efforts; increase employees’ belief in the company’s purpose; make investors feel better about investing; and inspire jobseekers to want to be part of the company, instead of applying somewhere else.

Yet few companies do this really well. In recent years, attempts at injecting originality and innovation into this area (usually by playing around with interactivity) have tended to result in features that are unconventional and overly complex.

But a new wave of innovations shows the potential in using simple and modern techniques to explain the company’s history in ways that will engage and inform different types of stakeholders – while making the most of the available budget.

Here are some examples.

Presenting the history by theme, not chronology

GE’s new history timeline takes the corporate history ‘outside the box’ in a way that seems highly appropriate to GE. The timeline interface functions first and foremost as a kind of data visualisation, allowing visitors to see at a glance just how many important innovations GE has launched across nine technology areas over the last 150 years.

GE-image.png

The underlying topic-based timelines are engaging and informative, although the user experience is, in some respects, quite confusing.

P&G also uses themes rather than dates as the main organizing principle for its P&G history page, helpfully letting visitors skip to the milestones that are most of interest to them. This also works to frame the company history in terms of strategic concerns – in this case painting P&G as an innovator and as a company that cares about ESG impacts.

P-G-image.png

Like GE’s offering, P&G’s timeline has awkward usability in some respects, but as an overall concept, this is a very good idea.

Telling stories

Who says an online company history has to be comprehensive in order to be effective? In fact, focusing in on a few compelling facets of the company’s past is often the best way to get visitors interested – as long as the basic facts are well covered somewhere, for those who need them.

The magazine-style articles linked from Eni’s new Who we are page are a good example of this, including features on Eni’s founder and the six-legged dog that appears in the company’s logo.

Eni-image.png

The feature articles linked from the Coca-Cola Company’s new History page are another good example, including an engaging feature on the backstory behind Coke’s famous ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke’ ad and a feature on ’10 stories of innovation and progress’ – both of which accentuate a kind of social consciousness that the company clearly wants to be known for in the present day.

Making films the centrepiece

If you can get the budget sign-off, there is nothing quite like a good on-demand movie to bring a company’s history to life.

Goldman Sachs’ new corporate history film is as watchable and intriguing as a Ken Burns miniseries, and indeed Mr Burns’ celebrated style of documentary storytelling appears to have been a key influence here. Engaging ‘talking head’ interviews bring out the drama and human element in the bank’s story. 

Goldman-Sachs-image.png

The commission for a film of this calibre is unlikely to have originated in the web team, but care has been taken to make the final product work in an online context. On goldmansachs.com, the film itself is split into 10 short films, so that visitors can skip to the ones that are most of interest. And there is a two-minute ‘trailer’ on the main History page, for those who only want an overview.

More stylised approaches can also be effective in this context. Examples include: the use of boisterous graphic effects in Pirelli’s film-based history and Nordea’s quirky use of historical re-enactment in the short film ‘200 years of banking’, a novel and memorable way of illustrating the company’s key innovations over the years.

Getting the basics right

HSBC’s new history timeline is a model of contemporary simplicity. Rather than try to cover every twist and turn in the company’s story, it distils the company’s past down to a few key milestones, elegantly designed and simply told on a single long page with clear headlines and good use of large-format imagery, all of which helps make the page easy to scan.

The page ‘reads’ particularly well on a mobile, where downward swiping on longer pages comes more naturally than on a desktop.

HSBC-image.png

 

Putting the company archive online

Many companies sit on masses of archival material which rarely gets seen by anyone other than an archivist and by researchers who are devoted enough to make a pilgrimage to the physical archive.

Eni has put its archive – including images, posters, magazines, videos, audio clips and many other assets – on to an elegant new website, with a powerful on-site search to help visitors find their way through the abundance. While aimed mainly at academics and experts, there is plenty here that would be of interest to employees, alumni and other audiences, including magazine-style pages that go behind the scenes at the picturesque and high-tech 18th-century palazzo that houses the archive.

Eni-image-2.png

Nestl√© goes even further, giving online visitors a 360-degree virtual tour of the Nest, the company’s museum. An excellent and immersive service that opens up the museum to people around the world, not just those who can make it to Switzerland – as long as they have time for a leisurely (virtual) stroll.

Finding the right mix

The point in all this is not that there is a new magic bullet for web managers who want to create the ultimate online company history, but rather that there is a range of new tools and techniques that should be considered.

The optimal mix today will usually include a variety of offerings rather than an exhaustive one-size-fits all feature – and should always include a short and simple narrative history for task-based audiences who just want the facts.

The best advice is probably this: to think about your company’s history not as a timeline or set of milestones, per se, but rather as a trove of information that can be packaged up and trotted out online in multiple ways, as befits not only the company and its various key audiences but also the latest communication goals.

Jonathan Holt is an associate consultant with Bowen Craggs

For more insights on all aspects of corporate digital communications from the experts who advise 25 of the world's 200 largest companies, download the Index of Online Excellence and subscribe to our weekly newsletter. 

First published 25 November, 2020
< Back to Commentaries