A Fast and Furious History of Breadcrumbs, Breadcrumbing and the Breadcrumb Trail

Image of Stephen Altrogge
Stephen Altrogge
Published: Feb 6, 2023

Buckle up and keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle because I am about to take you on a wild ride through the history of...

...the breadcrumb.

I realize that at first glance, the thought of learning the history of the breadcrumb probably doesn't get your adrenalin pumping. I mean, a breadcrumb is a breadcrumb, right? Yes and no.

Let me explain.

The Origins of the Breadcrumb

After doing an exhaustive study on the history of bread, I can confidently tell you the following:

  1. Bread was invented a long time ago
  2. The first breadcrumbs followed moments after

I realize that this startling revelation may take you some time to process. That's okay. Sit with it for a while. But please try to keep up.

For thousands of years after "a long time ago," bread was made. And that bread gave birth to breadcrumbs. Until 1812, most scientists believed that breadcrumbs had evolved as far as they were going. But then, something unexpected happened: the breadcrumb appears in a fairy tale called Hansel and Gretel.

Let me give you a quick refresher on that bizarre, horrific story. Hansel and Gretel are the children of a poor woodcutter. Due to a brutal famine, food was in short supply. The children's stepmother convinces her husband to take the children into the woods and hope that a stranger takes them in. (Note: To any children reading this, I assure you that 80% of stepmothers would never do anything like this.)

Unbeknownst to the parents, Hansel and Gretel overhear them talking. The next day, as the family strolls into the woods, Hansel drops white pebbles behind him, marking the way back home. When the father and stepmother abandon them, Hansel and Gretel wait some time and then follow the pebbles back home. The stepmother is outraged that the young children dared to return home rather than starve in the woods, alone and scared. (Note: At most, only 60% of stepmothers would feel this way.)

The family goes out into the woods again the next day. This time, with no pebbles to use, Hansel leaves a trail of breadcrumbs behind him to mark the way back home. Unfortunately, Hansel didn't count on birds eating his breadcrumbs, and his path home was destroyed.

Lost in the woods, Hansel and Gretel stumble upon a gingerbread house that happens to be inhabited by a witch who finds eating children a delicacy. While Hansel is locked in a cage to fatten up, his sister outsmarts the witch's attempt to cook them both. Gretel feigns ignorance on how to climb into the oven, so the witch provides a demonstration to prove there is enough room for both children to fit. As the witch crawls further into the oven, Gretel slams the door shut - curtains for the witch.

Ever since the tale of Hansel and Gretel was first published, the idea of using breadcrumbs to leave a trail has been firmly established in the popular imagination.

Breadcrumbing in Relationships

The breadcrumb has become such a common metaphor when leading someone down a path that it has spawned a verb form: "breadcrumbing."

That's when you're in a relationship—or trying to start one—and the other party continually drops small morsels of interest to keep you on their trail. It might be an occasional message, phone call, or social media interaction. Maybe even plans for a date that never quite seems to happen.

In the end, there's usually no follow-through. Basically, what we call breadcrumbing today used to just be called "leading someone on."

Whatever you call it, it's not nice. (And at least 45% of stepmothers would never do it.)

Breadcrumbs and Technology

As the internet gained widespread adoption in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this idea of "leaving a trail" was adapted for web navigation. Web developers quickly realized that the internet was a vast, confusing place and that users would need some help finding their way around.

They looked to Hansel and Gretel for inspiration and breadcrumbs were born...again.

The early days of web navigation were a bit rough. Developers were still trying to figure out the best way to implement breadcrumbs on websites. As a result, there was a lot of trial and error (and some errors were worse than others). But eventually, they figured it out and breadcrumbs became a staple of web navigation.

In the early days of the internet, most websites were static. That is, the content on the website didn't change very often. This made it relatively easy to implement breadcrumbs because the structure of the website wasn't likely to change.

But as the internet has become more dynamic, with content that is constantly changing and being added, breadcrumbs have become more difficult to implement. Developers have had to get creative in how they display breadcrumbs on websites.

One popular method is to show the breadcrumb trail as a series of numbered links. Each link represents a page on the website and clicking on the link takes the user to that page. This is a great way to provide users with a quick way to navigate back to previous pages on the website. The downside of this is that it's not always easy for users to remember what page is associated with each number.

Another popular method is to show the breadcrumb trail as a series of text. This has the advantage of being more compact than the link method and it doesn't require the user to click on numbered links.

GPS Breadcrumbs

In the early to mid-2000s, sites like Mapquest began to be used in place of traditional maps. Directions to a destination would be laid out in a step-by-step, breadcrumb-like manner. Instead of having a map blocking your view while you flew down the highway at 70mph, you could squint at an 8.5x11 sheet of paper while barreling down the highway. If you missed a turn, all you needed to do was slam on the brakes, pull an illegal u-turn in the middle of the highway, and find your way back.

Fortunately, GPS devices eventually became popular and made getting around much easier. With a GPS, you no longer needed to worry about memorizing breadcrumb-like directions. The GPS would do all the work for you and provide turn-by-turn directions that were easy to follow. With the widespread adoption of smartphones in the late 2000s, suddenly everyone had a GPS in their pocket. Directions were still laid out in a breadcrumb-like fashion and would update dynamically if you missed a turn or had to take a detour.

Breadcrumbs of Trust

All of this riveting history brings us to a different type of breadcrumb that has become increasingly important over the last decade. It's a term coined by Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World author Scott Baradell: "breadcrumbs of trust."

Trust breadcrumbs are any touchpoints a customer has with a brand that increase the customer's trust. In a world where customers are bombarded with choices and it's difficult to know which brands to trust, trust breadcrumbs can be the difference between a customer choosing your brand or going with a competitor.

The customer journey has many steps between awareness and purchase. It is not linear and involves numerous online and offline interactions. Each interaction is an opportunity for the brand to build trust with the customer. Brands that prioritize building trust will have a much easier time acquiring and retaining customers over brands that focus primarily on the sale.

Some common trust breadcrumbs include:

  • Positive online reviews
  • Positive media coverage
  • Social media posts from happy customers
  • Security badges on websites
  • Transparent pricing
  • Easy returns/exchanges

Essentially, a trust breadcrumb is any experience a customer has with your brand that makes them more inclined to trust you.

Over the years, L.L. Bean has built up an incredible amount of trust and goodwill with its audience through the strategic use of trust breadcrumbs. The company's flexible return policy is one of the most well-known and respected in the industry. L.L. Bean will accept returns on any product at any time for any reason. This policy instills a tremendous amount of trust in the customer and makes them much more likely to purchase from L.L. Bean over a competitor with a less favorable return policy.

The takeaway for brands is that trust should be a key focus at every stage of the customer journey. By creating positive experiences and instilling trust in customers, brands can build strong relationships that lead to repeat business and lifelong loyalty.

Final Thoughts

Breadcrumbs have come a long way since Hansel and Gretel first scattered them in the forest. Today, breadcrumbs can be found in everything from dating sites to website navigation, GPS devices to online reviews.

While the concept of breadcrumbs has evolved over time, one thing remains constant: the importance of trust. In a world where customers have countless choices and it's difficult to know which brands to trust, brands that focus on building trust have a clear competitive advantage.

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