What’s Your Story: Tips for Creating Origin Stories

March 2019

Popsicles in six different colors isolated on a white background.

Image: iStock

In 1905, an 11-year-old Frank Epperson mixed a soft drink powder with water and then accidentally left the sugary liquid and stirring stick outside on his family’s San Francisco porch overnight. The youngster woke the next morning to discover an ice pop, which some years later became the frozen treat now trademarked Popsicle. (So named by Epperson’s children, who called him “Pop,” after rejecting his first eponymous suggestion: the Eppsicle.)

It’s a lovely origin story. There’s just one problem: It may not be true. Enterprising social media sleuths checked weather records during the time of invention, and San Francisco never reached freezing temperatures. Nearby Oakland, maybe; Epperson, though, didn’t move there until he was older. In fact, he supposedly forgot about his frozen snack on a stick for the next 18 years.

This isn’t to say Epperson didn’t invent the enduring frozen confection to rival the already popular ice cream on a stick. But with the wealth of data now available to the masses, it’s best to make sure an origin story, even one as enduring as Epperson’s, rings accurate.

Making that personal connection

Origin stories are important for a brand, especially one competing in a crowded market. They provide a personal connection for those needing one. Today’s consumers want to align with a brand, and one way to leverage that emotional desire is for marketers to tout their origin story. As companies grow, their origin stories may lose their appeal because the products speak for themselves. Or, a product’s origin no longer fits the image.

Take Hidden Valley Ranch dressing, whose branding conjures idyllic pastures from which fresh salads come together. The original idea for the now-ubiquitous condiment came from a plumber working in Alaska in the 1940s who cooked meals for crews and wanted to salvage unused buttermilk. He and his wife eventually opened a dude ranch outside Santa Barbara and continued to serve the dressing and later dry mix, which was a big hit with city slickers pretending to be cowboys. The brand is now owned by Clorox, whose brand identity isn’t even remotely pastoral.

Tech companies’ humble starts

Some of the biggest tech companies’ origin stories often involve enterprising college students working in a dorm room or garage. Somehow, I suspect the actual plans for those companies involved far more individuals, some with needed influence, and more pleasant environments, like a dining room or den.

What does resonate with the most successful companies is how their founders arrived at a solution to a problem or answer to a need ahead of everyone else. That innovative spirit should be showcased. And, even if it took time to launch the company, an origin story itself should be succinct. (Want to read ours?)

Claim to be the first? Prove it.

Be careful claiming to be the first, unless you are rock solid on that superlative. Just because you aren’t aware of someone else’s idea or invention doesn’t mean it didn’t exist before yours. At best, if you aren’t sure, say you’re “one of the first.” Then play up the need, not the notion behind a business’s beginning, that launched the organization.

No one wants their origin story to be challenged, as the Popsicle one has been. A quick Google search shows Epperson’s accidental invention story still prevails. There have been plenty of frozen-flavored-ice-on-a-stick imitators over the years, as any visit to your local grocer shows. But only one can be called an original. Faulty origin story or not.

Thank you for reading this,

Anne Saita