Behind the Brand: Why Your Organization’s Origin Story Matters


Photo Credit: Getty Images

Author: Jessica Walton

You sit in the dark in the movie theatre, absorbed in the action. You want to know what happens next. Mainly, you want to know what happens to the hero. You want to know because you care. But have you ever stopped to consider why you care?

From Marvel to Pixar, Luke Skywalker to Achilles, if there’s one thing the protagonists have in common, it’s the compelling stories wrapped around their origins. The hero’s origin story is important because it explains to the audience who this person is and the motivations that drive his or her actions. In other words, the origin story reveals fundamental components of the character’s past and how this past shapes the character’s current decision-making. It enhances the overall storytelling experience by infusing the character arc with meaning, empathy, and wonder so that the audience stays invested.

When we talk about an origin story, we naturally think of characters in great movies or captivating novels. We rarely think about businesses or organizations.

In the non-profit world, origin stories are regularly used to define programs, drive missions, and support fundraising efforts. The defense sector, ironically, rarely takes advantage of the hero origin story structure when defining its programs and missions, despite the rich storytelling opportunities in this arena. Part of this may be a result of the fact that this sector tends to attract fewer creatives who think along these lines. Moreover, organizations that serve the government may shy away from promoting themselves in this manner unless there is an upfront business or policy objective involved.

But origin stories, when skillfully woven into an organization’s strategic communications in the defense sector, can pack an effective punch with key audiences. For organizations that often manage complex high-tech projects or support policies barely understood by the public, a well-told origin story provides an opening to discuss the organization’s mission and reason for existing.

Whether your business began in a garage (Microsoft) or your government agency was formed to address a new 21st century health issue, an origin story is important from a business strategy perspective. Before your audience becomes invested, they naturally want to know what you do and why you do it. The more your audience understands where you’re coming from, the more likely they are to embrace your product, policy, or guidance.

Origin Story Examples

An origin story can illustrate the evolution of an organization to underscore how its mission has evolved in response to its environment over the years. For example, did you know that the United States Secret Service was originally established in July 1865 as a bureau in the Treasury Department to suppress widespread counterfeiting? The agency eventually expanded to conduct criminal investigations and finally began protecting the president in 1902, but its original mission was to stabilize America’s nascent financial system following the end of the Civil War.

As for high tech, the software company Red Hat, Inc. is an example of using origin story in a personable way that is explicitly tied to its current mission. As the company puts it on their website, Red Hat began “when a small businessman met a geek at a tech conference.” The name Red Hat originated from the “geek’s” experience in his college computer lab where he wore his grandfather’s red lacrosse cap. Instead of protecting trade secrets and filing patents for expensive proprietary products, Red Hat took a radically different approach to software: a stable, accessible distribution of a constantly evolving, community-developed operating system called Linux—reflected in its origin story material that portrays the founders as part-rebel in a college lab and part-industry superhero.

With laboratories dedicated to both complex defense and high-tech challenges, MITRE’s origin story is directly tied to our mission—“Solving problems for a safer world”—which includes supporting our nation with a unique combination of deep technical expertise and unbiased advice. Born out of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in 1958, MITRE was established as a private, not-for-profit company to provide systems engineering expertise to the U.S. Air Force.—to bridge the academic research community and industry to architect the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, or SAGE, a key component of Cold War-era air defense. That work laid the foundation for the Department of Defense-sponsored National Security Engineering Center, the first federally-funded research and development center (FFRDC).

MITRE-operated FFRDCs began in the 1940s in response to World War II and the need for government agencies to build a critical mass of science and technology knowledge that was unavailable within their own ranks or the commercial sector. Over the decades, MITRE evolved into a multifaceted research and development company, helping the federal government solve its most pressing problems, both military and civilian. Today, we operate several FFRDCs dedicated to key challenges in defense, artificial intelligence, aviation/transportation, homeland security, cybersecurity, health, and more.

At MITRE, we connect the strengths of government, industry, and academia to discover solutions not possible by one entity working alone. We create a force multiplier for the public good and tackle challenges to the safety, stability, and well-being of our nation.

Why Telling Your Story Matters

As Washington, D.C.-based creative director Matt Nagy puts it, “We’re drawn to origin stories because we want to see how ordinary becomes extraordinary.” Effective communication ultimately begins with your audience understanding what makes an organization’s brand unique. Sharing an origin story provides an opening to discuss the organization’s mission or reason for existing, as well as the benefit it provides that might not be obvious at first glance. It also allows the organization to speak about its brand at a more foundational level in a way that will appeal to a layman or non-technical audience.

Just because your organization’s mission is obvious to you doesn’t mean it is obvious to others. In the complex and often opaque realms of defense and high tech, crafting a compelling narrative about an organization’s origin gives your audience an opportunity to share in your organization’s vision.

In an era of heightened public awareness, misinformation can quickly shape public opinion. By proactively sharing your organization’s origin story, you have the opportunity to shape the narrative upfront. This also gives your organization the upper hand in correcting misconceptions and providing context that counteracts negative perceptions about your brand or the industry in which you operate.

The significance of sharing an organization’s origin story extends beyond conventional marketing strategies, including:

1. Aligning with Mission and Values: Clearly articulating an organization’s mission and values through an origin story helps stakeholders understand the purpose behind the organization’s existence. In sectors where alignment with national security or global advancements is crucial, this alignment reinforces the broader impact and significance of the organization’s contributions.

2. Demonstrating Expertise and Innovation: High-tech and defense companies often operate at the cutting edge of technology. Communicating an organization’s origin story provides an opportunity to showcase the expertise and innovative spirit that led to its establishment. This not only sets the organization apart from competitors but also assures stakeholders of its ability to stay at the forefront of advancements.

3. Establishing Trust and Credibility: Sharing the journey from inception to present day demonstrates transparency and authenticity. Organizations where confidentiality is paramount will be constrained to discuss details of their work, so offering a glimpse into the organization’s origins will allow stakeholders to understand the principles that have guided its founders and successors as the organization grows. This transparency is vital for establishing trust among clients, partners, and the public. (Conversely, a problematic origin story can still be useful if it’s joined with a story showcasing corrective actions and subsequent growth to a more equitable, ethical entity that has applied lessons learned from its history.)

4. Humanizing the Brand: Even in industries driven by technology and security, people remain at the heart of every operation. Sharing its origin story humanizes an organization’s brand, allowing stakeholders to connect with the people and vision behind the organization. This personal touch can resonate with employees, clients, and the wider public, fostering a sense of loyalty and pride.

The Building Blocks of the Origin Story

Trying to figure out how to construct and effectively use your organization’s origin story? If you answer these five questions, you’ll have the building blocks to get you started:

  1. Who are we?
  2.  Where did we come from?
  3. Why were we established?
  4. How were we established?
  5. What do we do today?

Below are a few general tips for shaping your organization’s origin story:

  • Demonstrate in simple terms how your technology or service supports a mission. Federal agencies, for example, usually have strategic plans tied to missions and objectives.
  • Master the ability to distill complexity into compact language.
  • For discussing highly technical information, link it to a concrete or real-life example for memorable impressions.
  • Use strong, proactive, visual language. Help readers and stakeholders envision how something works and is relevant to their lives.
  • Don’t forget that a compelling story demonstrates impact. Illustrate your organization’s impact upfront, in concrete terms relevant to both the expert and the layman.

“Scaling” Your Origin Story for Maximum Impact

A good origin story should also be scalable—meaning, you can easily cannibalize it and retrofit it for different platforms and media so you get the most bang for your buck: share your origin story in a paragraph or two on your website, condense it into a snappy tagline at the beginning of your videos, or include it in the boilerplate you share with the press. You get the picture.

Ultimately, unveiling your organization’s origin story is more than a marketing tactic; it’s a strategic imperative. It builds trust, showcases expertise, humanizes the brand, addresses ethical concerns, aligns with mission and values, and shapes public perception. It’s easy to forget the past if we don’t unite people with compelling stories that recall our original mission.

In an environment where every detail matters, the story of your company’s beginnings can be a powerful tool for strategic communication. In short, give people a reason to care by telling them why you exist and the benefit you bring to the table.

About the Author: Jessica L. Walton is a communications strategist and video producer at MITRE. She is also an instructor at the in-house MITRE Institute, teaching strategic communications, storytelling, writing, and video scripting tailored for professionals working in defense, high tech, engineering, and government.

© 2024 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. Case number 24-1233


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