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Company Anniversaries: Past-Centric or Future Focused?

June 24, 2019 • Paul Woolf

The following scenario is one that History Factory encounters in virtually every anniversary planning engagement. The client is excited by the wealth of artifacts and insights at their disposal. Maybe they have an extensive archives or other repository of materials and assets. Naturally, the client team is eager to tell the stories of their organization’s past and bring to life what happened many years ago. Or perhaps they want to focus on some figure from the past, such as the company founder, and what they said, wrote, or did to help mold today’s company.

The client team talks to the senior executives who control resource allocation for the anniversary—and they get sideswiped. Usually, it’s by a senior executive who pictures a program that makes the organization look “historical,” a relic that is obsessed with “the good old days.” Their fear is that the anniversary program will be too past-centric.

Why does this occur? In some cases, it’s because they fear opening old wounds, perhaps from parts of a company’s history that are best left forgotten (read more on how to control your company’s narrative). Or perhaps they’re concerned that the heroes of the past will make today’s leaders look pedestrian. Or as is often the case, they want to project a particular image of how they’re navigating the company forward and not investing resources in a proverbial anchor from the past.

It’s a common challenge to get the right balance between commemorating where you’ve been and celebrating where you’re going.

The fact is that a company anniversary can be both past and future focused, if it’s planned correctly. It can bring to life stories from the past and uncover authentic content that illuminates where the company has been while painting a picture of where the company is going and how it envisions the future. It just needs careful, purposeful planning, with a constant eye out for examples from the past that help illustrate where the company is headed.

We’ve developed a number of tactics over the past 40 years that help companies achieve anniversary nirvana—programs that Start With the Future and Work Back. Here’s a selection of the most common ways companies have used their anniversary to help drive future-focused awareness.

Idea 1: Thought Leadership

An anniversary offers a tremendous opportunity to launch a new thought leadership effort. A campaign tied to a milestone year offers permission to step out from behind the curtain, heighten your profile, and make your voice heard on issues affecting your industry. It makes sense: Older companies have navigated the choppy waters of history and survived to tell the tale of the inevitable industry changes they’ve faced along the way.

Idea 2: Make Change Happen

Anniversary campaigns also offer an excuse for change. Here are just some of the changes we’ve seen and experienced that coincided with an anniversary:

  1. Change in strategic direction, vision or purpose. The company has always thrived during times of change in the past, and the anniversary is a perfect opportunity to announce where it’s headed.
  2. Change in go-to-market strategy or branding. An anniversary is a perfect vehicle to announce a new approach to marketing product and services, or a new or refreshed brand identity or brand hierarchy.
  3. Change in organizational structures. Structural changes are usually developed and implemented separately from an anniversary campaign. Mergers, acquisitions and departmental restructurings are often pushed in an anniversary year as a way of demonstrating progress toward a new vision.

Idea 3: Blend Past, Present and Future.

Creating a blended narrative about an organization’s past, present and future is a common method to ensure the future is adequately represented during an anniversary program. Often, this narrative materializes as a headquarters exhibit, roadshow, company book, virtual experience or storytelling initiative crafted for use internally or externally, such as a social media campaign. It could even involve create a future-focused museum that blends past and future. In all of these, the task of the narrative is to transport the audience to the past and see it from a particular vantage point, then transport them back to the present to imagine the future from a similar perspective.

Idea 4: Create an Entity for the Future

This idea could involve setting up a charity or foundation, using the anniversary as the launch pad for a future-focused effort to do good. Or it could involve creating an innovation lab for future growth. These efforts could be launched anytime, but announcing or launching them in an anniversary year adds an accent to where the company is going.

Idea 5: Create a Challenge

Anniversary programs often include a charitable act. Our own 40th involved a variety of efforts as part of our Day of Giving. Beyond putting together a team for a charitable fun run, organizations can use the anniversary to accomplish a lot more. For example, the anniversary year could include the launch of an internal or external innovation challenge, seeking fresh ideas or improvements to existing products/services. Anniversary programs could also include challenges related to the environment, diversity or other efforts that have ties to past progress and future goals.

Idea 6:  Keynotes

Make sure that any keynote speeches delivered by leaders during the anniversary year convey their vision for the future, showcasing past successes as a true north. Employee get-togethers typically happen more often or on a grander scale during an anniversary year, so using keynotes to communicate anniversary messaging is a no-brainer.

Conclusion

Ensuring the future is part of any anniversary program requires experience, insight, and a clear set of objectives and priorities. The story of the future is usually a natural progression: Let’s share where we’ve been on the journey, and where we’re going next. The wealth of stories available from the past should be reframed as stories that inform, or are at least consistent with, future direction. After all, how the organization dealt with challenges of the past is likely similar with how it will deal with challenges in the future. The trick is to connect the two in one seamless program to mark a milestone anniversary.

For more ideas about how to mark your corporate anniversary, check out our comprehensive Guide to Celebrating Your Company Anniversary.

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