This article was originally posted in September 2012, but updated in September 2018.
Any corporation that is planning to mark an important milestone—whether 10 years or 150—needs to ensure that the messaging around the program is effective. Because corporate anniversaries are recognized at most every five or 10 years, and more likely every 25 or 50 years, it’s not like other marketing and communication programs, but instead something outside of the normal course of business. Anniversaries require specialist skills, experience in “anniversary marketing,” and above all a healthy dose of imagination. The possibilities afforded by what for many employees is a once-in-a-lifetime corporate occasion are huge. So when starting to think about the messaging for the anniversary, it’s important to start from your current message strategy, and then build outwards. After all, company anniversaries are opportune times to really drive home your key messages to core stakeholders about the brand and the company.
First off, the tone needs to be right. Understandably, many executives tend to approach a company anniversary as a celebration, a time to shout from the rooftops about how great the company has been over the past however many years. Just bear in mind that not everyone feels like it’s party time—not if company results are lagging or headwinds are leading to cost-cutting. Many organizations arrive at an anniversary shortly after they’ve had to face various business challenges.
Company anniversaries are fixed items in the calendar, but results and behaviors are far more fluid. There may have been layoffs or at least some significant form of cost-cutting. And even if the organization has handled economic troubles better than most, consider the mindset of target audiences: 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, a client in the financial services industry considered 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 in the “old days.” Fortunately, more practical approaches prevailed. The potential for negative PR was simply too great.
The point is this: Think “commemoration” as much as “celebration” when considering the tone for your corporate anniversary Commemorating is a broader positioning that can bring in the sub-messages of appreciation, recognition, achievement and, of course, celebration. All together, these messages will resonate more with core audiences than simply a celebratory tone, and they will give anyone planning their corporate anniversary the ability to adjust the emphasis based on recent realities.
Client who are embarking on anniversary planning commonly want to bundle every positive message about their company into the program. They want to portray their company as innovative, future-oriented, caring and compassionate, part of the community, founded on traditional values and beliefs, customer-centric, employee-centric, shareholder-centric, poised for growth and growth-oriented, and on and on. While having a series of key messages is vital, a kitchen sink approach can be detrimental.
Imagine cramming every message to every constituent into a single advertisement. You wouldn’t expect that messaging strategy to yield good copy, and you can’t expect an approach that tries to be all things to everyone to actually work. The key is to pare down the number of messages to a manageable handful that give focus to your company’s story and meaning to your anniversary activities.
Sometimes, narrowing down messages can be challenging, as is often the case when different members of the anniversary planning team have differing views. Try establishing a framework for primary and secondary messaging. Look at each message in terms of a few factors:
- Is it “new news” to the target audience?
- Is it compelling and aligned with how we need that audience to perceive our company during our anniversary?
- Is it consistent with our recent and planned messaging?
- Is it true? Can it be validated?
Establishing criteria and asking members of a planning team to rank the impact of specific messages can help yield a viable framework.
Everyone loves to talk 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.
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 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.
While the company has certainly been a successful innovator of products, its true innovation is in how it built a customer-centric culture that encourages client retention and justifies a higher price point.
Although innovation remained important, the team 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.
Message testing with a target audience is considered standard practice when thinking about advertising and external communications. This testing is often neglected for corporate anniversaries. However, surveys or discussion groups provide the team with a few benefits:
- Preventing major missteps. “Ivory tower” executives may not understand how rank-and-file employees or vendors perceive the company and therefore push messages that backfire. A few years ago, a client asked for help revitalizing a stale brand identity. Management wanted to highlight how the company was not just innovative but also put employees first. Unfortunately, we learned that employees felt that the “old regime” had put profits before people, operated with outdated management methods, and offered no flexibility or modern benefits. Armed with this insight, management began taking concrete steps to ensure employees were heard by setting up team advisory panels and monthly “lunch with the CEO” sessions.
- Benchmarking your corporate anniversary goals. If you establish metrics for key messages, you have a basis for judging the effectiveness of anniversary program. And while you probably won’t repeat your corporate anniversary program annually, the outcomes can help with future messaging strategies and planning.
- Refining message platforms. Having input from key stakeholders can often help narrow down the message options and ensure that team members are on the same page.
In general, we’re big fans of anniversary themes. A theme ties together anniversary communications and activities. It provides a focus point and rallying cry for all your activities. It becomes part of your corporate anniversary identity.
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 an organization’s unique essence. Look for specific words or events from your history so the theme and messaging have real stories and substance behind them.
Many of our clients’ best anniversary themes have been inspired by real and authentic stories that we uncovered through research. In fact, the very best anniversary themes and messages live beyond the anniversary year because they are such an authentic portrayal of the organization and brand. While messaging matters, so does the theme that unites the program. Let your creativity flourish!