Why preserve corporate DNA? The politics of remembering

What constitutes the DNA of a company? Is it the culture? The history? The premises, or products, or people? And what part of it must be preserved, at all costs and for all time?
Take Nando's, for example... a company with a deeper and more visible culture than most. Should they hold onto the original concept of peri-peri? Or chicken? Or grilling? Or grilled peri-peri chicken? Robbie Brozin? Offbeat advertising? Red and green wooden trim? The spicy stuff they put on the chips?

As Nando's expands around the world, different managers from different cultures will try to interpret the company's core offerings in different ways... and this remarkable organisation is deeply interrogating the essence of its culture to cement into place the exact building blocks of its DNA.

The fact is, once a company has been around for most of a century, it is likely to have played an important role in the industry and society it helped create. In some cases, the role may have been vital... as in the great railroads that opened up America, or the way SAB changed early South African drinking habits forever, or the gold mining houses that shaped the future of this country - even as they tore the families apart who would inherit that future.

And the most fragile asset owned by any company is its collective memory. Physical artifacts like documents, photographs, news clippings, and videos tend to lie around in boxes and cupboards, with absolutely no priority in anyone's busy day. When things like these are used, they are generally borrowed on an informal basis, and relocated... and with office moves, staff turnover, and a lack of archiving systems, they simply disappear over time.

The intellectual memory of a company is even more fragile. Generally, it remains in the heads of the individuals who experienced it, and is never recorded in any form.

So it is simply responsible - and for any company regarded as important in a country's history, even absolutely necessary - to find, record, and digitise every possible item, if only for posterity.

A good example would be Pick ‘n Pay, an institution that earned its thread in the fabric of society by not only bringing low prices to the doorsteps of our parents, but fighting the government for our right to buy cheaper petrol and bread.

Pick ‘n Pay had been talking about documenting their history for ten years, when Jonathan Ackerman and Sean Summers finally pushed the button a few years ago. Those years were spent researching, planning, designing, writing, and collecting the thousands of artifacts and memories to be housed in the ‘Experience'. And of course, the job is not finished, and never will be... because the history of Pick ‘n Pay is a living thing, being written in the boardroom and the stores every new day.

A few years ago, Raymond and Wendy Ackerman cut the ribbon in the foyer of Pick ‘n Pay's new Johannesburg head office - home of the Pick ‘n Pay Experience. The foyer is a light, modern space which leads into a huge staff restaurant and coffee shop, and the Experience is a symphony of glass, and steel, and sophisticated electronics which literally ‘hangs' in the space between the two.

Visitors and staff alike are seduced to spend a few delightful moments enjoying an overview, or taking hours to deeply interrogate the past that made this company great. From the reception desk, the natural path into the building is through a ‘Time Tunnel', which positions the legacy of the company on a timeline with major local and world events. Three workstations invite students who may be studying marketing, retail, or business management to check details, or research a thesis.

Touch screens attached to the reception chairs offer a quick immersion in the key aspects of the history. Plasma screens invite the visitor to ask Raymond Ackerman or Sean Summers a host of questions which will be answered by a video clip. Five separate booths are activated by pressure-pads to give viewers a deeper view of the five pillars of the culture on LCD screens. The total experience is, well, just that: an ‘experience', which can be absorbed in the participants' own time, at their own pace, and in as much or as little detail as they require.

So what about the other great companies that make up the fabric of South African history? Amazingly, we know of no other than SAB's ‘World of Beer' in Newtown, and now, Pick ‘n Pay. (And if others exist, why don't we know about them?)

On the other hand, there are few great companies in the USA and Europe that haven't preserved their DNA in a custom-built facility. They're called corporate museums, or galleries, or visitor centres, or even ‘experiences'. Most of them are rich and engaging tourist attractions, all are touch points that inform stakeholders' impressions of those companies. Isn't it time corporate South Africa woke up, and gave us some roses to smell?

Johannesburg-based VWV Group is South Africa's leading experiential communications agency. It's VWV's belief that inspiring audiences with 360-degree experiences that engage the hearts, minds and senses isn't a trend but a 21st-century marketing imperative. The agency is a passionate believer in the power of sensory brand experiences to enhance understanding and buy-in.

VWV is dedicated to designing communication campaigns for clients that result in stronger, sustainable relationships with business partners. The relationships may be externally focused, with customers, or within the organisation, targeting staff or other key stakeholders. Its experiential toolbox integrates live theatre and events, exhibits and 3-D environments, multimedia and interactive experiences, channel marketing and measurement to achieve this end.

For further information visit www.vwv.com or call 011 799-2600.


About the author

Mark Steinhobel is the founder and Chairman of the VWV Group of companies - one of South Africa's leading alternative and experiential communication specialists.

VWV was founded in 1981, and consists of specialist business units focusing on video and film production, event management, internet and multimedia applications and corporate and direct theatre, with offices in Johannesburg, Cape Town and London.

The Group is best know for its creative track record both here and abroad including the most awarded specialist agency at the Loeries for the last four years running.

Mark serves on the Loerie Committee, the governing body of The Vega School, and is a founding member of The Oxygen Tank. He has also served on the boards of the Direct Marketing Association, the National Television and Video Association, and the Association for Multimedia International in the USA.

Mark is an acknowledged expert on the subject of alternative communications, and has presented at a host of local and international conferences including the DMA conference in South Africa three times and the UK Direct conference in Jersey twice. He has also served on or chaired numerous award juries, including the Loeries five times, the Cannes Lions, and the One Award in New York.

Mark is right where he should be .....-
Heading up the leading experiential company in the business.....
Posted on 7 Nov 2008 09:45
Mark does NOT serve on the Loerie Committee-
Mark does NOT serve on the Loerie Committee. Look at the website and you will see he does not serve as a committee member
Posted on 23 Oct 2008 15:36
Nope, he doesn't, any more. He did, however, for 14 years.
Posted on 27 Nov 2008 16:52