From Past to Present: 4 Tips for Embracing History to Build a Future-Forward Brand

History buffs might know Evanston, Illinois as the birthplace of prohibition, where local residents banded together with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to pull what was probably the biggest party-pooper move in American history. However, times have changed, and today many spirit connoisseurs (and thirsty locals) identify Evanston as the home of FEW Spirits, a distillery that specializes in handcrafted gins, whiskeys and ryes, and is available on five continents, across 25 countries.


In building its brand, FEW Spirits not only acknowledged Evanston’s heritage as home of the WCTU and a long-term “dry” city, but actually changed history by managing to overturn century-old prohibition laws and become Evanston’s first distiller of grain spirits within the city limits.


For a very “spirited” episode of 12 For 12, we went behind the scenes, peeked inside the barrels and talked to founder Paul Hletko to learn how FEW is embracing historical elements and adding a unique twist to create a quality product that’s getting parties started around the world. You can catch us having an in-depth chat on our After12 Podcast here.


  1. Inspire feelings of nostalgia.


Whether you’re talking to your grandparents or a group of millennials, everyone likes to romanticize the good ol’ days — even if each person’s definition of when exactly those days were differs completely. And while life now is inevitably very different than it was in 1893 — and probably a lot better — having scenes from The World’s Columbian Exposition emblazoned on a bottle of spirits in an old-school apothecary style bottle inspires us to think of simpler and easier times (even if no one on the planet was even alive then).


As Anna Johansson writes in Entrepreneur, “Nostalgia has a way of intoxicating people and making them align with certain brands.”


So whether you want to align, like FEW, with the Prohibition Era, channel the vibe of the Roaring ‘20s or appeal to Tamagotchi-toting ‘90s kids, think about the ways your brand can wield nostalgia to your advantage and appeal to the very human idea that things were far better way back when.


  1. Master storytelling.


As everyone can remember from their school days, history can be the most dull subject or the most fascinating, depending on how it’s taught. The same goes with brand stories. If history is integral to your brand and an important piece of your marketing plan, it’s critical to have a compelling, well-told tale to back it up.


FEW’s origins page, for example, explains the story of the brand in a succinct way, framing themselves as the company that, well, made Evanston wet again:


For nearly a century, Evanston, Illinois, the home of the Temperance Movement, was a dry city. In dire need of liquor laws that weren’t penned the same year as the invention of the band-aid, FEW’s master distiller overturned century-old prohibition laws to become Evanston’s first distiller of grain spirits within the city limits. Alas!


“A great origin story is the holy grail of branding,” speaking expert and author Kindra Hall writes in Inc. “Nailing this story allows it to be told, retold and recognized by customers, potential customers, employees and stakeholders even with a single sentence.”


Hall sites two other short-and-sweet, easily recognizable brand stories:


“It was 1975 and a couple of friends sat in a garage, building computers that would be the first computers in a long line produced by a multi-billion dollar company. Can you name the company? Of course you can. It’s Apple.


“Or do you recognize this story: From the cramped space of his college dorm room, a kid spent hours coding and developing a network for people to share information and photos online. It would become a website used by more than one billion people? Obviously this the story of the birth of Facebook.”


No matter what service or product you’re selling — be it a laptop, a social network or a bottle of bourbon — by crafting a unique story for customers to latch onto, you’re allowing them to connect with you on another level while fostering familiarity and inspiring enthusiasm and brand loyalty.


(For helpful tips on how compelling storytelling can help you build a heritage brand, check out the aforementioned Entrepreneur article.)


  1. Ensure authenticity.


Customers have an uncanny ability to tell if you’re faking and can smell a rat a mile away. (Well, except in the case of Fyre Fest… but that’s a different story.) When you’re considering what historical elements you’d like to harness and use to anchor your brand, think about what really makes sense and what you can logically pull off.


If FEW was based in say, Boston, for example, it wouldn’t make sense for the brand to put images of the world fair in Chicago on their bottles or be named for the second head of the WCTU (Frances Elizabeth Willard — FEW). But as a brand built in Evanston, for people in Evanston, and run by Evanston locals, it’s a valid homage and not a cheap marketing ploy. And by producing spirits that are unique twists on classic recipes, FEW is ensuring that this isn’t just a case of history repeating itself.


“That authenticity, that truth, is something you can’t fake, and people recognize it when they see it,” says Hletko. “You have to be true to who you are and what you are… take the classics and have your own spin on it.”


  1. Remember: it’s all about the people.


This particular tip isn’t specific to the idea of harnessing the power of history, but Hletko gives a piece of advice when explaining the true mission of FEW that’s something every marketer should consider: that it’s not just about the product or service, but the people it’s for.


“People want to be a part of something,” Hletko says. “With FEW Spirits, people can be part of the brand. Certainly we make it, but we’re just part of the story. The real story is the people out in the real world who are drinking it, sharing it. The real story is lifelong friends sitting down and sharing a [drink]. that’s what this brand is about: bringing people together.”


As for what he wants for the future, well… that might be a little more spirit specific.


“We want to share it with more and more people… hear more stories of people conceiving their first child after spending some time with the product.”


Hey… we’ll drink to that.


To go inside the distillery and learn more about FEW Spirits, catch the full episode of 12 For 12 here.

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