Whether your institution is commemorating 25 years, 75 years, 100 years or more, your future stands on the principles and innovations that made your company the great institution it is today. Your past reveals the soul of your company and fuels your vision for what’s next. An anniversary can be a powerful catalyst to inspire transformation, impelling you to engage your entire organization, customers and partners in a bold plan to move forward.
I’ve had the honor of interviewing more than 80 executives who embraced the challenges and opportunities that come with leading an anniversary campaign. They have openly shared lessons learned about what worked, what didn’t, and why.
Time is your greatest asset. In our experience, the companies that are the most successful are also the most proactive—those that enter the planning phase two years prior to their anniversary. Beginning a few years in advance gives ample time to research, share opinions, ask questions and analyze alternatives. If you wait, time may become a liability, limiting both the scope of what you can do and potentially the insights needed to drive a powerful program. After all, finding the golden nugget from your history is often challenging and involves extensive research in your archives or records.
On the flip side, we’ve seen companies start too early and experience what we like to call “anniversary fatigue.” Essentially, those involved in the anniversary campaign planning stages experience the inevitable challenges of corporate anniversaries (i.e. budget constraints, uninvested leadership, lost momentum, etc.) and burn out before they even get to the tactics and execution of their anniversary. Two years seems to be the happy medium. Of course, the more complex the organization, the more time you should try to build in to avoid complications.
An anniversary allows you to tell stories from your corporate heritage that demonstrate how you have continually been able to create the future. As we say, Start with the Future and Work Back™—first, determine what your company would like to be before you start searching for examples to get you there. Your search for stories should be focused on reinforcing the direction your company intends to go, rather than simply looking at where you’ve been. This will help determine success metrics as well as provide much-needed focus for your research and the stories you tell about your company.
At times, planning an anniversary can feel like you are alone on an island waving back to the rest of your company. Gathering with peers from other companies who are going through or have recently experienced the same unique challenges of corporate anniversaries can provide a second wind, not to mention the inside experience possessed by a relatively small group of marketing and communications professionals.
Every year, marketing experts gather in Chicago at the Anniversary Marketing Summit to share insights from their anniversary programs to help others create successful corporate anniversary campaigns.
At the Anniversary Marketing Summit, attendees have the opportunity to educate themselves as well as see how other companies have handled challenges such as budget, timing and execution.
If you don’t craft your story, someone else will, and it may not be the story you want told. Carefully crafting your story provides a tremendous opportunity to update, modernize or wholly transform the narrative of your company.
Every company’s history is nuanced. And it can be challenging. Perhaps your company has acquired a series of brands over time and you’re finding it difficult to tell the individual histories of each company without having a muddled message. Or perhaps your company has done a poor job of maintaining its heritage and you’re finding many gaps in the timeline.
Understanding which decision-makers are the most important to have on board is critical to a successful corporate anniversary campaign. Knowing at what stage to align your company’s leadership can be the difference between hitting or missing an anniversary. In our experience, all anniversaries go to the C-suite for blessing, and in many cases may have started from discussions among the most senior executives in the organization.
If you have a committee organizing your corporate anniversary, it’s also important to understand what each representative stands to gain from the successful celebration of this upcoming milestone. For example, HR or Operations or Procurement or Marketing may all have distinct goals and personal beliefs that need to be aligned to ensure the program delivers effectively. Sometimes, getting a clear line of sight on what you’re trying to achieve, who you’re trying to reach, what message they need to hear, and other considerations is challenging. That’s why we invented a process called Clear Line of Sight,® which we use with our clients to ensure just that—clear alignment on what you want and where you’re going.
Understand that an anniversary is one of the rare events in an organization’s life that is purely positive. It should inspire pride and extraordinary participation from every leader, employee and partner.
A successful corporate anniversary campaign leverages internal celebration to the public, as well. An optimistic workforce often acts as the best brand ambassadors.
Avoid the temptation to execute too many tactics and activities. What you choose to do should be deeply engineered into the common pattern of your business. If you have regular communications to customers, it’s possible to “anniversarize” them so they reinforce what you’re doing while continuing business as usual. If you regularly stage an employee event, by all means keep it on the calendar, but think about how you can make your anniversary year’s edition different, special, memorable. By all means, try something new in your planning, but sticking to what you know is also important.
Anniversaries really do work, and they act as a catalyst for corporate change. By all means, focus on the tangible deliverables—the events, the campaigns, the content, the publications or exhibits—but realize that it’s not a case of celebrating an anniversary just because you happen to have one coming up. Look at your short- and mid-term strategic goals and plans, and ensure that your anniversary strategy and the resultant tactics work hard to help you achieve those goals. Some companies use their anniversary as a means to announce major changes: new initiatives, products, hirings, offices. Others use it to change business as usual and become more forward-thinking and more agile. The bottom line is the bottom line—an anniversary marketing program can dramatically help your bottom line, not just in the anniversary year but well beyond, as you accelerate in a new strategic direction.
Be a good host, not a hero. Focus on giving and not receiving. Ask yourself: What does our organization uniquely have that we can give to help solve pressing societal issues? Community and cause-related components of an anniversary program are important, as both a chance to give back, and as a reminder of what good the company does year in and year out for society at large. Make your anniversary-year community outreach special. Encourage the company’s charitable efforts to be even bigger in an anniversary year. These sorts of initiatives often have a lasting positive impact for a much wider audience than most of your anniversary programs.
If your CEO is fortunate enough to be leading during a major milestone, they know it’s an important time for your organization, standing at the juncture of its heritage and its future. Understanding how they want to leverage this opportunity will help inform everything you do. But be sure to remind them that an anniversary isn’t about looking back—it’s about looking forward and building on what your company has accomplished and experienced over the years to make it even better in the future. Keep your CEO’s focus away from dusty books or other archival relics, and focus their attention on how gems hidden within these relics could inspire people today. Stories from the past, perhaps of situations faced that mirror what today’s workforce may be facing, can suddenly become an illumination for the CEO of the character and purpose of the organization. The more the C-suite is energized by the anniversary campaigns and programs, the better.
Milestone celebrations have a way of inspiring people to do their very best. Be bold with your intentions, enjoy the process, and revel in the outcome during your anniversary year and beyond! And of course, if you need help with any of the considerations outlined, remember it’s something that History Factory does every day, so let’s talk.