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Young Brands With Long Histories: Facebook Timelines Allow For Brand Storytelling, But What's The Next Chapter?

Spotify and Hulu are among the companies that have taken advantage of the Facebook Timeline format to create long histories despite their relative youth. It’s an accessible form of brand content, but what happens when the novelty wears off?

On Facebook, The New York Times’ brand page includes a Timeline that dates back 161 years—which makes sense, considering the Grey Lady was birthed in 1851. But why does the Timeline of Spotify, a startup founded in 2006, stretch back to the 11th century, long before the digital era of iPhones, Internet radio, and subscription-based music?

Like Spotify, many young startups and brands are coming up with novel ways of taking advantage of Facebook’s freshest social feature. Rather than simply delineate straight history on Facebook Timeline—a potentially limited exercise for newer companies—certain companies are developing creative interpretations of their heritages, which more generally express what their brands are all about. While it’s still early on in the timeline of Timeline, it’s unclear whether there’s any benefit here beyond novelty, or whether this plays into a larger social strategy.

For example, Spotify’s Timeline, which launched just last week, focuses on the history of music. It highlights years such as 1098, when Hildegard of Bingen was born, or 1653, when "Canon" maker Pachelbel came to life. Below each entry, Spotify includes a link for playlists with similar music. The point here is to use Timeline for practical purposes: for social music discovery, which is a large part of Spotify’s product.

But are Spotify subscribers really using the Facebook Timeline to discover Medieval music dramas or Baroque organ compositions? It’s unlikely.

The same goes for Hulu, which launched its Timeline on Friday. According to Hulu, the startup’s origin dates back to 1900, in Paris, France, where the concept of "television" first came into existence. Like Spotify, Hulu tries to use the platform for social TV discovery, featuring links to shows such as Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Mister Rogers. Ironically, most of the entries on Hulu’s Timeline only work to highlight shows that Hulu doesn’t have the rights to, including: I Love Lucy, The Tonight Show, Mash, Saved By The Bell, ER, Friends—the list goes on.

Hulu’s Timeline is nothing more than an interesting, Hulu-branded page showing the history of major moments in television. (Apple’s famous 1984 ad is among the other entries.) While some big-name brands offer content focused on brand heritage—such as Ford and Old Spice—the Timelines are, for the most part, just as "entertainment"-driven. Ford’s Timeline includes its founding IPO document, while Old Spice’s page offers a parody of history that indicates how Old Spice’s 1945 aftershave product may have been responsible for the Baby Boom.

And perhaps that’s the point: These brands are not marketing anything. They’re simply reacting to Facebook’s new platform, and creating interesting content that users would want to share. "Our main objective is to make sure that over time, the advertising is as good as the content you would receive from your friends or family," Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s VP of global marketing solutions, told me last month. "It’s very similar to your own Facebook experience. There are certain friends that you probably love getting updates from—they are witty and interesting—and that’s really what we’re trying to do with brands: Stop thinking about brands over here and people over here, but actually [think of] brands as people."

In other words, the point is to create compelling content, which will lead to social engagement with consumers, and in turn more Facebook fans and perhaps other, as-of-now intangible benefits. Essentially, Facebook Timelines are just re-purposed Wikipedia pages. For Spotify and The New York Times, it’s unlikely they imagine their Timelines will drive significant new engagement to its music and newspaper articles. But the platform is likely to drive more engagement with their Facebook pages—and possibly with the brand itself in the long term.

In that sense, Facebook’s platform has forced brands to become more creative. The question is: to what end? If this is product is simply a passing fad for brands—a one-off creation likely never to be updated—how long will the novelty last for consumers?

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