The National Geographic Society, founded in 1888 in Washington, DC, is one of the largest non-profit scientific and educational institutions in the world. It represents one of the most enduring and recognizable brands on the planet – whose mission ironically is “to inspire people to care about their planet,” according to its current president, John Fahey, Jr.
National Geographic’s motto is “to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge while promoting conservation of the world’s cultural, historical, and natural resources.” According to the Society, its entire range of media properties reach 360 million people around the globe monthly. But it is its flagship yellow-covered magazine that has for decades served as the most identifiable with the organization, with a monthly circulation today of nine million copies.
Large stacks of National Geographic magazines grace my home library, as they do in millions of other homes, businesses, and libraries across the globe. The spines of my magazines are neatly aligned, displaying the month and year – with some copies dating back to the 1960s.
What is it about this soft-back publication that makes it so beloved and difficult to part with? The Society was founded on the principle that it would capture the interest of readers by capturing magnificent images of nature and far-away geographies in stunning detail. In fact, it was one of the Society’s founding members, Alexander Graham Bell and his son, Grosvenor (who later became the first full-time editor of the magazine), who first recognized the marketing power of telling a story through photographs.
It is worth noting that such an innovative magazine and organization is associated with one of the world’s greatest innovators, Alexander Graham Bell – who was awarded the first U.S. patent for the telephone in 1876.
During its 121-year history, the National Geographic Society has continued to find ways to successfully tell its story against a constantly changing cultural and technological backdrop. Just as it leveraged television and video throughout the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, it is today leveraging high-definition television and its Nat Geo HD channel to engage new generations of enthusiasts.
Any for-profit enterprise today could learn more than a thing or two from this highly successful non-profit organization. An iconic status is not given away; it is earned. In order to survive and thrive, it is imperative that you remain nimble, and continue to innovate as technologies and customers’ lifestyles change around you. Yet, at the same time you must remain true to your core values and mission if you want your business and brand to endure.