The Importance of Origin

I love a good origin story.

I’ve been watching “Jessica Jones” on Netflix over the last week or so and find myself completely wrapt by the back story – how she became a detective, how she developed super strength, her history with Kilgrave. It’s the same experience I had with the “Daredevil” series and each of the stand-alone Marvel movies.

Episode VII is opening in a couple of weeks and it’s the first film in the Star Wars franchise that is looking forward since “Return of the Jedi.” Expectations are high, but with a new cast of characters, there’s plenty of room for new back stories, new connections, new histories to be played out in memory and flashback.

If pop culture is any sign of things, origin stories are beloved by the masses, not just writers from Cincinnati.

The interesting thing to me is how my love of origin story goes well beyond television and film. When I travel, I like to learn the origin stories of places – hotels, restaurants, cities, countries. Not just history, but beginnings. The origin myth of places like Mexico City, how London began as a collection of nearby villages. How The George Inn in Southwark was founded in medieval times but burned down only to be rebuilt in the 1677. Knowing that makes an evening pint with a friend different than stopping by the TGIFridays in the strip mall – more meaningful, more interesting.

Origin stories permeate my preferences in purchases too. I love thinking about Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman pouring molten rubber into a waffle maker to create soles for the proto-Nikes. I think about Eddie Bauer making down jackets for early military aviators. I picture Leon Leonwood Bean working in the back of his Maine sporting goods shop to create a better hunting boot and C.C. Filson outfitting Yukon-bound prospectors from his Seattle shop. It makes me wonder if C.C. ever met Jack London and what that conversation might have been like.

I look at a modern day Jeep and don’t think about technology or parent company acquisition. I think about Ernie Pyle, one of my all-time heroes bouncing down a rutted track in an early General Purpose (G.P.) vehicle, making notes for a story about G.I.s to send back home. I look at my messenger bag and can almost picture a young, optimistic, adventurous Yvonne Chouinard hunched over his blacksmith tools, on the cusp of creating Patagonia. Even now, I’m typing on a MacBook Pro and can still kind of feel two guys names Steve in a garage in California.

The origin story is, for me at least, the cornerstone of a brand. A good backstory will cover the occasional misstep in design or flaw in manufacturing. The origin story is the touch stone, the human side of the brands I love.

Call it serial curiosity or nerdy inquisition, but if a product or brand catches my eye, I want to know everything about it. And for a long time, it seemed like there wasn’t much to know. The Swiffer sweeper was created in a lab by one of the world’s largest corporations, a corporation founded by two guys in Cincinnati who saw an opportunity in all the unused pork fat flowing out of the city’s myriad slaughterhouses. Those men – brothers-in-law William Procter and James Gamble – made soap and candles. The soap was particularly interesting because of a physical property unlike others in the market – it floated. That soap was Ivory and now P&G is one of the world’s largest companies.

The Ivory story resonates. Why? It’s is a people story, not a corporate strategy.

The internet has done a lot of wonderful and terrible things. But among my favorite is the democratization of the market place. Unlike the pre-connected era, it has never been more possible for small companies to find audiences beyond the bounds of their neighborhoods. And, say what you will about hipsters and makers, but every day, new origin stories are being written. Aaron Draplin takes a love of old things and a desire for utility and creates Field Notes. Mark Zuckerberg drops out of Harvard to create one of the most powerful forces in human connectivity. A white rapper from Seattle calling himself Lord MackLamore and his producer Ryan Lewis build a music and entertainment empire without the help of agents, managers or labels.

I keep my eyes out for good origin stories. Every time I see a new brand or product, I go to the website, scroll to the bottom and read the “About” tab. If I like the story, I’m more interested in buying. If I don’t, I’m less. Strange, but that connection to where something comes from is important to me.

Brands that respect their own heritage, that know exactly where they came from feel like they are in it for the long haul, not the quick buck.

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