The Business of Applied History
What Brand Historians Do
When the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020, some companies were well-equipped to make the necessary adaptations. They had contingency plans, emergency response teams, and a readiness to put resources where they needed to go. But as with any undertaking of such high stakes and such a vast scale, planners and executors needed as much information as they could get to make their efforts as effective as possible. Given the lack of present-day examples or templates through which to understand what was happening, any historical precedents that could help companies navigate the challenges of the pandemic were valuable beyond measure.
Enter us, the brand historians of Heritage Werks, a heritage agency firm for Dow 30 corporations and major sports franchises. We specialize in the business of applied history, and while the pandemic necessitated some rapid adjustments, we provided our clients essentially the same service we always do: interpreting their pasts to help them with the present and future. We marshaled history into service for the present emergency in a number of ways. In some cases, we could tell clients how they’d weathered pandemics in the past. Many of our clients are old enough that we were able to tell them how they handled the 1918 influenza epidemic; a few are old enough that we researched how they handled cholera outbreaks in the 19th century. For clients who hadn’t experienced those obvious precedents, we explored their histories dealing with other forms of large-scale disruption and humanitarian crisis, such as natural disasters or wars, to provide examples of adaptation and resilience that had clear applicability to their present circumstances.
Many of our clients had a sudden need for content about anything other than the pandemic, as well. When sports seasons were abruptly canceled, teams scrambled for historical content to keep the attention of tens of thousands of fans who were just getting ready to watch a 162-game season and now needed alternative entertainment. We rushed to support alternatives to gameday programming that included (among other things) curated digital exhibits, trivia games, classic archival footage, virtual classes, and general support for any topic they cared to delve into now that they and their fans had some unexpected downtime for reflection on the history of the team or the sport. Historians are storytellers, after all, and the world had an insatiable demand for stories in 2020.
Our paths to Heritage Werks wound through the academy. We both entered the history doctoral program at the College of William & Mary in 2003, worked with the same adviser (the wonderful Leisa Meyer), and graduated and hit the academic job market at roughly the same time. We both had vague but persistent visions of a life spent working in universities, pursuing knowledge and imparting it to eager students. Alas, though we both cobbled together part-time and one-year positions for several years, our stamina eventually ran out. Even the good jobs weren’t permanent and barely paid a livable wage, and the grind of continually finding and relocating for new fixed-term positions lost its glamour as we advanced deeper into our 30s. The lack of healthcare and other benefits particularly lost its glamour, as complications such as age and children came along. We wanted to spare our respective families the annual stresses of looming unemployment and relocation. And so, having lived in the world of academia for our entire adult lives, we came (at different times) to the same conclusion: if we wanted a living wage, benefits, and a measure of stability (both personal and professional), we had to leave.
That was a daunting realization, but it would have been easier if we had known then what we know now: the rest of the world values what we do, and it is entirely possible to pursue history for a living without connection to an academic institution or nonprofit. The world has an unceasing desire for content, and historians really know how to deliver it. The communications platforms of the 21st century require a never-ending stream of videos, data, images, thoughts, quotations, anecdotes, and jokes. Major companies, brands, sports teams, and businesses have to supply that material to participate in the modern marketplace. The best ones do so strategically, using content to tell their stories in ways that are true and relevant. And who better to identify and tell a true story than a historian?
We found the transformation from history professor to historical consultant to be surprisingly straightforward.
We both ultimately secured positions as brand historians at Heritage Werks, which specialized in providing such content. With the guidance of our supervisor, another former William & Mary history graduate student who had forged her career outside of higher education, we found the transformation from history professor to historical consultant to be a surprisingly straightforward affair. To be honest, some days it’s pretty similar to building a lecture, running a discussion, or even advising students.
We work in a department called Content and Communications, where most of our work is less dramatic, but no less interesting, than the special projects prompted by the coronavirus. These projects can cover any number of topics, from general to specific. We can research and write broad company histories designed as internal reference guides on the whole of the company’s history. Or perhaps a company wants to know about something narrower, like the origins of its slogan or the truth behind a popular bit of corporate lore about its founding. We can write focused research reports on those questions. We prepare briefs for CEOs to use in high-level discussions and produce e-learning experiences for new employee orientations. We build digital museums that any internet user can access and create social media content to drive public engagement. We give in-person and virtual presentations to help corporate teams brainstorm and make appearances in documentary videos. As varied as our work can be, however, most of it is basically a niche subset of public history. We conduct research using our clients’ private archives and publicly available sources, analyze those materials to create a useful, engaging, and accurate understanding of the past, and share our findings in a clear, accessible manner to an audience of nonhistorians—the same kind of work that historians do in classrooms, museums, and other spaces around the world.
There is one big difference from academia that we had to get used to. Rather than toiling individually and autonomously on research or teaching, our work nowadays is often heavily collaborative. Within the company, a team of archivists helps us find relevant materials, a team of research assistants helps us glean the useful information from those materials (many of our projects turn over too quickly for one person to do it all), a digitization team photographs or scans any archival materials the client might want a copy of, a platform team maintains the secure websites that hold those scans for us and our clients, and a client services team liaises with our clients about all of this. Writing documentary scripts or building websites or generating reports that would take years if undertaken by a solitary academic are produced in weeks or months in collaboration.
In the private sector, a very specific audience has already found the scholar.
And then, of course, there are the clients themselves, who are really paying attention. Unlike those poor students taking required courses at 8:00 a.m., our clients have sought us out, engaged us for specific projects, and intend to translate our findings into thoughtful components of internally focused policies or public-facing projects. We need to make sure that our work meets their needs, and we have to be able to explain to them how it does so. In academic scholarship, solid work can travel a bit until it finds its audience in the right journal or publisher. In the private sector, a very specific audience has already found the scholar, and solid work that doesn’t satisfy that audience is not sufficient. The process requires much more communication and coordination than the largely solitary rhythms of academia, where one presents one’s findings only at precise and carefully designated times.
While we never envisioned a life as anything but academic historians, the rewards of leaving that career track have been more than worth the sacrifices. We no longer have the stimulation of classroom engagement, but we get the satisfaction of applying our skills to create something of immediate service to another party, and with it a reassurance of the importance of history on a daily basis. We no longer have the joy of choosing our own subject matter, but we get unfettered access to exclusive archival materials scholars can usually only dream of, and we are able to cultivate expertise in many and disparate subjects. (Jack is now an expert in the history of high technology, the financial sector, life insurance, prepared food brands, and several live family entertainment brands. Caroline is an expert in the histories of sports teams that span 150 years and four professional sports leagues, as well as the fascinating history of middle-class men’s footwear and the role of candy in the Space Race.)
But perhaps the most important tradeoff is that, though we’ve lost the oft-cited “flexibility” of the academic lifestyle, we’ve achieved a healthier work-life balance than we ever managed in academia. In a position where clients are paying directly for our services, no task is considered “off the books” or unpaid, and our workload adapts to our schedule rather than vice versa. Our working hours are set to a very reasonable 40 hours a week, plus the very rare night or weekend. If a new project falls from the sky, the expectation is that we’ll shift one task to accommodate another—not that we’ll just somehow get it all done. That dynamic makes our work feel simultaneously more manageable and more valued. We now have the peace of mind that comes with knowing where our next paycheck is coming from, having steady access to affordable healthcare, and not needing to disturb our families with endless moves, even as we gain the satisfaction of having roles that make use of our skills and contribute to the public good.
A career in brand history wasn’t the dream either of us took to grad school in 2003, but maybe it should have been.
Caroline Morris and Jack Fiorini are brand historians at Heritage Werks.
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