Old ideas

We like to think we’re ever so inventive in PR, but many of today’s ideas, fuelled by oh-so modern insights about digital channels and newly […]

We like to think we’re ever so inventive in PR, but many of today’s ideas, fuelled by oh-so modern insights about digital channels and newly empowered consumers, aren’t that different to the great ideas of decades if not centuries ago. Social entrepreneurship, microfinance and sustainability are bandied around as modern concepts, but people like William Lever, Jesse Boot and George Cadbury were building businesses by tackling social causes 150 years ago.  Their stories (Ian Bradley tells a number of them in Enlightened Entrepreneurs) aren’t a million miles away from the stories told by the leaders of progressive companies today.  Those Victorian pioneers would doubtless recognise many of the themes of the presentations today’s leaders make.  I’ll be looking for comparisons at the Responsible Business Summit in London in a couple of weeks.

We’ve just come back from a family holiday in America.  One of the highlights was a visit to Monument Valley in Utah.  It is one of the most striking places on Earth, yet  It feels extremely familiar because it’s been the backdrop for so many Hollywood films.   And while I was doing very well at my promise not to check emails, I couldn’t help taking some more lessons from nearly 80 years ago.

The Museum at Goulding’s Trading Post in Monument Valley tells the story of Harry and Leone (‘Mike’) Goulding who left Durango, Colorado in the 1920s to build a new life among the Navajo people in southern Utah.  They helped rebuild the region – after it had been hard hit by drought and the Great Depression – thanks to some techniques we would recognise today:

  • Present the product well. The Gouldings had settled in the middle of one of the most stunning landscapes imaginable.   But they sold it well too.  They encouraged a photographer, Josef Muench, to capture the unique environment in a series of sweeping panoramic photographs.
  • Persuade key opinion formers. Armed with these photographs, Harry and Mike set off for Hollywood and made John Ford (a well-known director of action westerns) their number one target. They couldn’t get a meeting,  but plastered the photographs outside his office.  He was sold on the idea and visited their home.
  • Be a good partner. The Gouldings went out of their way to make life easy on set for Ford and his stars, notably John Wayne.  A string of movies followed, including Stagecoach and The Searchers.
  • Look after your stakeholders. The Gouldings were good neighbours to the Navajo people.  They learnt their language and brought employment through the film industry, with Navajos earning money as, amongst other things, extras in the westerns.  Later they introduced a health clinic to the area.

The area isn’t without its problems today, but it draws in income from tourists and film and TV (two episodes of Doctor Who were shot there in 2011).  It’s also served as a backdrop for entertainment as diverse as a Metallica video and the Red Bull Air Race.

A few years ago, we wrote a history of the 130 year old Lifebuoy brand.  It was notable then how many great ideas were buried in the brand’s past, and how much we could learn from them.  So while we’re obsessed with modern technologies and forms of communication, it’s good to remember that the past contains an awful lot of good ideas. It’s worth a visit, just like Monument Valley is.


Photo credit: Moyan Brenn