The Real History of Five of Your Favorite Brands
Your Brand History Doesn’t Have To Tell The Truth All The Time.
Have you ever known someone for a long time, only to discover… she’s an IRL vampire? Or she’s trying to steal your identity, or she’s a former assassin, recently woke up from a four-year coma and is hell-bent on avenging the former lover who tried to kill her on her wedding day?
Or, you know, someone went to the same high school as a friend of yours and you had no idea. Maybe they were at the same Carly Rae Jepsen concert as you last year, and you bond over it.
Once you find out, don’t they become a little more interesting?
Grab the popcorn, because this week we’re talking about some of the brands you think you know – but you have no idea.
Today, most people think of Banana Republic as a purveyor of conservative office wear, mall staple, and the spendy older sister to the Gap.
But what’s up with the name “Banana Republic”? The term itself comes from O. Henry’s collection of short stories, Cabbages and Kings. The term suggests a rural, tropical country that depends financially on agriculture. In Henry’s story, foreign fruit importers have more influence than the country’s own government.
Banana Republic, the company, started in 1979 as an outlet for co-founder Patricia Ziegler’s modified army surplus clothing. By 1983, the company was a thriving catalog business with two Bay Area stores. At this point, the Gap purchased the brand, bringing the store into malls across America. These stores looked nothing like the Banana Republic of today – thanks to the Indiana Jones franchise, America was, ahem, bananas for the safari aesthetic, and the stores were festooned with items like Jeeps, giraffes, and tusks.
It’s a far cry from today’s conservative minimalism imposed by the Gap.
That red-boxed mix you reach for when you need cupcakes—stat? It seems like it’s always been there for you. But would you guess Duncan Hines himself was a traveling salesman who could barely cook? It’s true!
As a traveling salesman in the 1920s-40s, Hines didn’t exactly have access to Yelp. He documented locations and reviews of hidden ice cream stands, barbecue joints, and diners along his travels until friends and family started begging him to share his list. He did, in 1936, in the form of the self-published Adventures in Good Eating. He continued updating the volume until his death in 1954.
Hines himself never made cake mix. “Recommended by Duncan Hines” was the Zagat rating of the time, with signs appearing in windows of restaurants who earned the honor. In 1952, he signed off on the approval appearing on things like ice cream and cake mixes, and in 1959, Procter & Gamble bought the franchise.
So yes: Duncan Hines was a real person, but no, he wasn’t a baker at all.
Today, Madewell is the vintage-inflected little sister to J. Crew. “Founded in 1937” is part of their branding, but the Madewell that was founded in 1937 was actually a men’s workwear brand selling no-frills workwear to the fishermen and manufacturers of New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Back in 2014, Buzzfeed published a story from the great-grandson of the founder of Madewell. “We don’t do too much of that designing bullshit,” the author’s great-uncle stated, and his great-grandfather’s motivation was profit. Quality was what drove profit.
Mickey Drexel, CEO of J. Crew in 2014 (and instrumental in Banana Republic’s above transformation), acquired the logo and trademark and used it to create a vintage narrative for a very new brand, and it was a success – superseding it’s big sister, J. Crew, in profits.
Also in the old-story-new-brand vein, Shinola’s “Built in Detroit” watches are worlds away from the brand’s shoe-polish origins. Bicycles, headphones, leather goods, journals – all items sold under the name famous in part for the WWII era insult “you don’t know shit from Shinola”.
Similar to Madewell, Shinola looks nothing like it did originally—a shoe polish company founded in Rochester, NY. The brand today revitalizes a long-dead company’s history in order to tell a more compelling story to its consumers, who crave depth and old-world working-class authenticity.
And it works. Shinola has a fan in Bill Clinton, who purchased 14 watches from them in 2014.
While we commonly associate Volkswagen with the friendly-looking Beetle of the peace-loving 60s, the brand’s origin is significantly darker. Founded in Germany in 1937 with a name that translates to “the people’s car”, Adolf Hitler commissioned Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) to create a cheap vehicle designed to carry two adults and three children at 60 MPH, costing the same as a motorbike. The vehicle was sold via a monthly subscription, but production was halted with the outbreak of WWII. The brand shifted to producing war vehicles using concentration camp labor through 1945. (I told you it was dark).
The Beetle sold well through the 60s, but sales began to slump in the 70s. The company introduced new models and continued to grow. By 2014, Volkswagen was one of the biggest firms in the world. Today, the brand is recovering from the revelation that they rigged emissions tests for diesel vehicles.
Branding isn’t about telling the absolute, transparent truth about yourself at all times—it’s more like reality TV. If your storytelling is compelling, it’s selling. If your brand’s story feels more like it’s too busy telling its own story to actually convert, it might be time to audit.