How Caterpillar became legendary by focusing on outcome over product
by Andrea Bullard
• Research shows that stories are the key to making people organize and act
• Brands like Caterpillar rely on their legends to become legendary
• Effective engagement strategies favor emotional bonds rooted in truth over physical products
Plenty of modern businesses operate like prehistory’s early humans: they talk only about literal, physical things—their products—and wonder why such messaging fails to draw in customers at the rate they need to thrive. Just as those early humans evolved to think beyond what was in front of them, brands must find the ideas that will drive action for their audiences.
Speaking about the necessity of story to human organization, historian Yuval Noah Harari writes: “You cannot organise (sic) masses of people effectively without relying on some mythology. If you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you.”
For that reason, the first conversation on Earth was likely the dullest. Lacking imaginative, fictive language, our ancestors spoke in literal terms about the physical world: predators, food, water, and not much else. Before the invention of stories, groups of humans did not grow much beyond 150 members. There were no cities or countries. Historian Yuval Noah Harari explains: “Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if people could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.” As long as humans spoke only about physical things, organization on a large scale remained impossible.
In order to grow, every business must define—and continuously perpetuate—a story that unites employees, investors, customers, and partners. Though story is a necessity for organizations, many business leaders mistakenly view it as a “nice-to-have,” slated just below “new logo” on their to-do list. They are working backwards.
After the human brain evolved and became more complex thanks to access to better nutrition, the earliest Mesopotamians developed the ability to construct stories to explain their observations. They imagined an all-powerful being called Anu who dictated the cosmic order, including the functions of mortal kings. This mythology provided what Harari calls the “needed social links” to ensure the enforcement of The Code of Hammurabi, one of the best-known ancient legal frameworks. It relied on the Babylonians’ collective belief in Anu to enforce legal judgements. If physical violence was punishable by law, it was because Anu willed it to be so. The laws required some connection to a shared legend in order to be successful on a large scale.
People form the strongest bonds around shared beliefs. As the most compelling and memorable way to communicate belief, story provides the framework, the “needed social link,” through which business leaders can reach audiences, internal and external, on an emotional level. Without a story that connects product to purpose, businesses won’t spark excitement for their brand, and—like the earliest humans—find amassing any kind of significant following impossible. Before undertaking branding, marketing, or cultural transformation efforts, organizations need a compelling story that communicates who they are, why they exist, and why customers should care.
Successful stories do not rely strictly, or even mostly, on fanciful conjuring. They are rooted in truth, and embellished to add drama and evoke emotion. Even the millennia-old myth of Anu was based on the very real existence of the stars and the sky. Harari warns against myths that rely too much on fabrication: “The power of human cooperation depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction. If you distort reality too much, it will indeed weaken you by making you act in unrealistic ways.”
Brand stories too, must capture the truth of an organization and situate it within a compelling narrative that captures the problems the brand solves and the dynamic between brand and customer that allows the customer to triumph over them.
It’s no coincidence the most enduring brands are called “legendary.” Iconic brands like Caterpillar perpetuate a mythos that transcends their products. They use that story to inform every aspect of their business, from daily cultural practices to high-level branding. Like all good brand stories, Caterpillar’s is rooted in its purpose—to help people build a better world.
In 1904, company founder and inventor Benjamin Holt imagined a tractor that could move easily across the marshy soil of his hometown of Stockton, California, where farmers struggled every year to prepare the soft land for growing season.
On Thanksgiving Day, Holt instructed some of his mechanics to remove the smooth wheels from a traditional tractor and replace them with wooden treads, which successfully redistributed the tractor’s weight.
The following year, Holt invited a photographer to take pictures of his invention. As Holt’s machine moved across the earth, the photographer exclaimed: “If that don’t look like a monster caterpillar… Why even a child could make no mistake.”
When he joined forces with fellow inventor C. L. Best to start a tractor company, Holt eschewed the expected name of Holt & Best, and instead settled on Caterpillar: a loveable insect with metamorphosis written into its genes.
Throughout the twentieth century, Caterpillar’s technology evolved to not only meet needs, but to accelerate progress. Caterpillar assisted in some of the most significant feats of the decade, including the construction of the Panama Canal and the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, for which its engines supplied power. A video about Caterpillar’s role in the event shows dramatic footage of the launch, astronauts floating inside the spacecraft, the Earth suspended in space, and lunar crafts crawling across the moon. Only a few shots pan across the Caterpillar engines—the literal products—that made the mission possible.
In this and other videos about the brand’s history, Caterpillar perpetuates a story about the wonders of human progress, casting itself as the steadfast behemoth guiding its customers toward some of the greatest moments in history. Had Caterpillar focused on the technical features of its products (a mistake many brands make) the videos would lose virtually all emotional impact and fail to perpetuate anything resembling brand mythology.
Businesses needn’t participate in momentous feats to craft a story that captivates employees and customers. They can follow Caterpillar’s example simply by eschewing literal product descriptions and focusing on what those products allowed customers to overcome and accomplish, remembering that large-scale human cooperation and action requires myth.
Caterpillar’s storytelling has helped to propel the company not only to iconic status, but to the forefront of its market. In 2020, Caterpillar captured over 15 percent market share and $41.7 billion in revenue.
Caterpillar deploys its mythology to support internal cohesion as well. It motivates its employees on a daily basis through reminders of the brand’s role in aiding humanity’s most important work. It’s this sense of purpose—not a role’s literal job responsibilities—that motivate employees every day.
Training Specialist Deone Comage roots her onboarding strategy in the Caterpillar story: “I always remind my new hires that working here is more than turning bolts or punching a clock. What you’re doing is bettering the world and impacting people’s way of life.” Comage connects each team member’s job—from welding to painting—to Caterpillar’s customers’ ability to “do the work that matters.”
Caterpillar boasts high ratings on third-party employee review sites (which is impressive for a company of nearly 100,000 employees), with many locations receiving 4.3 out of five stars. Among its over 7,000 reviews on Indeed, Caterpillar employees most commonly indicated “clear sense of purpose” as an advantage of working at the company.
In May of 2021, members of multiple teams developed a complex engine optimization algorithm to help customers operate marine vessels more sustainably and efficiently. Successfully executing a large, cross-departmental project requires more than good management; it requires shared belief. Speaking about the success of the project, its lead engineer emphasized that customer outcomes—rather than product innovation–drove her and her team: “My end goal is not receiving a patent. My end goal is to create an improved product that helps our customers succeed.”
Caterpillar deploys a mythology that communicates its purpose through continuously reminding its audience of the feats it helps its customers accomplish. The strength of its internal culture and external messaging rests on the foundation that only a good brand story can provide. Business leaders that want to accelerate their organization’s growth should prioritize story ahead of other initiatives. Without it, businesses lack the means of connection which have been essential to human organization since the dawn of civilization.
Andrea is an associate at Woden. Want to stay connected? Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.