Commemoration, not celebration. First off, the tone needs to be right. Understandably, many tend to approach a company anniversary as a celebration, but not everyone’s feeling like it’s party time in this economic environment. More likely than not, the organization has had some challenges over the last few years. There may have been layoffs or at the least some significant form of cost-cutting. And even if the organization has managed through the recession better than most, consider the mindset of target audiences of the anniversary: employees, customers, vendors and communities. An overemphasis on celebration and success could be off-note if some of those constituencies have been going through hard times.
A few years ago we were meeting with a client in the financial services industry and they had the idea of doing an anniversary celebration “old school” with an over-the-top gala at a world-renowned cultural institution. They envisioned the event as a way to bring together industry leaders, clients and other VIPs the way they used to gather and socialize in the “old days.” Fortunately, more practical approaches prevailed.
The point is this: Think “commemoration” as much as “celebration.” Commemorating is a broader positioning that can bring in the sub-messages of appreciation, recognition, achievement and celebration. When used in combination, these messages will resonate more with core audiences than simply a celebratory tone.

Messages that can be “proof pointed.” Everyone loves to talk nowadays about “proof points.” A common challenge we see with a company’s anniversary message plan is that the history of the organization doesn’t actually support the message. Suddenly it’s hard to reinforce that message in a book, website or video because the organization’s history can’t support it.
Let me give you an example: Recently, we met with a company that had already done a fair amount of work on their company’s anniversary plan and were prepared to take their recommendations to the CEO. The planning team had put together some solid goals for the anniversary and had concluded for a number of good reasons that their primary audiences were employees, customers and their local communities. When we asked them about key messaging for these audiences, they immediately emphasized innovation. Now, what’s interesting about this company is what really makes them unique in the marketplace is their customer service. They were the first company to professionalize many aspects of their industry and they have a legacy of hiring for talent rather than specific experience. While the company has certainly been a successful innovator of products, their true innovation has been in how they built a customer-centric culture that keeps clients and justifies a higher price point.
Although innovation is still important and a critical message for some of their other marketing and communications needs, they realized that it wasn’t as meaningful in the context of the anniversary. They modified their messages to emphasize differentiating cultural attributes that could be conveyed effectively in the anniversary program and would resonate with employees, customers and communities.

Create a theme that’s unique. With some notable exceptions, we’re big fans of creating an anniversary theme. It’s an effective way to tie together and integrate anniversary communications and activities. But here’s a good litmus test for whether you have a good theme: Could one of your competitors use the same theme with their name replacing yours? If the answer is yes, then go back to the drawing board! The anniversary theme should capture the organization’s unique essence that you’re working so hard to communicate. Look for specific words or events from your history so the theme and messages of the anniversary have real stories and substance behind them. For many of our best anniversary themes, we’ve been inspired by real stories that we uncovered through research. In fact, the very best anniversary themes and messages live on beyond the anniversary year because they are such an authentic portrayal of the organization and brand.