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Guide to Celebrating Your Company Anniversary

October 4, 2019 • History Factory

Welcome to a Rare Event

By their very nature, company anniversaries don’t happen every year. And because of that, organizations often don’t have the instincts to know just how to prepare for them: no lessons learned from last year, no internal playbook that gets continually improved over time. For better or for worse, anniversaries are a once-in-a-generation opportunity—and challenge. Your anniversary’s deadline is non-negotiable—and it’s probably not the only thing on your plate.

This guide is designed to provide you with a framework and some practical tools to plan and implement your anniversary. Whether you have three years or three months, we hope you’ll find this helpful for planning and implementing your anniversary campaign.

Table of Contents

Best Practices and Worst Practices

Ideas for Celebrating an Anniversary

Determining a Budget

Planning Your Anniversary

Vision and Alignment

Stories and Authentic Content

Creative Expression

Implementation

Advertising and Promotion

Extending Beyond the Anniversary

Conclusion

Best Practices and Worst Practices

Pictured: the slides of the storyboard Sherwin-Williams assembled to help plan their 150th anniversary.

We’ve seen it all. From companies that start to plan several years out to those rushing at the last minute to pull together over-ambitious plans. From organizations that want meaningful, evergreen campaigns to those who want some balloons and tchotchkes. Here are a few recommendations, based on our experience with helping clients plan and execute their anniversaries:

  • Start early.
  • Align your anniversary with organizational objectives.
  • Engineer success metrics and measures into the process.
  • Create an authentic theme and identity that are uniquely yours and tie everything together.
  • Build a diversified portfolio of authentic content aligned with audiences, messaging and theme.
  • Commit to a few tactics and put your organization’s unique spin on them.
  • Develop programs with opportunities for participation and sharing.
  • Optimize your existing assets and channels.
  • Establish a narrative arc to your anniversary year.
  • Celebrate your success by helping others succeed.
  • Balance a top-down approach with local implementation.
  • Create an operating model that engages stakeholders and creates clear lines of accountability

In 40 years of anniversary marketing, we’ve seen a lot. Here are a few things to avoid:

  • Rush to familiar tactics.
  • Lots of disconnected tactics; no alignment or integration.
  • Begin planning too late.
  • Inconsistent messaging and presentation across the enterprise.
  • No clear idea of ROI.
  • Too much emphasis on birthday and celebration.
  • Too headquarters-centric.
  • Lack of defined target audiences.
  • Imbalance of past vs. future.
  • No substantive content to substantiate key messages and evoke emotions.

Understanding these recommendations is crucial. Keep the best practices and pitfalls in mind when reading the rest of this guide, for context as you begin your company anniversary journey.

Ideas for Celebrating an Anniversary

Pictured: a custom exhibit KPMG deployed to commemorate a major milestone. The exhibit is a series of connected pillars with information about the company.

There is no shortage of potential avenues for anniversary programming and tactics. But people won’t care about your anniversary just because you’ve made it another trip around the sun. Here are some tactics we’ve seen that have effectively engaged audiences.

  1. An anniversary event or party
  2. A commemorative book
  3. A heritage-based exhibit or brand experience
  4. A documentary film, with support from an oral history program
  5. An anniversary-related throwback product

This is not an exhaustive list, but rather food for thought as you continue to read through this guide.

Determining a Budget

Pictured: a custom lobby exhibit New Balance used to celebrate their company anniversary.

No single organization is the same. Each prioritizes business initiatives differently, with no one-size-fits-all solution for determining a suitable budget for an anniversary campaign. Here are some scenarios we routinely see, with some quick tips for each.

  1. You don’t have a company anniversary budget.
    • Option 1: Earmark a percentage of your annual marketing budget request for the anniversary celebrations.
    • Option 2: Price out your desired tactics to form a specific anniversary budget request.
    • Option 3: Set a desired outcome, such as a percentage of sales increase, and figure out how much that would cost to achieve under normal circumstances.
    • Option 4: Treat an anniversary like an Olympic sponsorship. Drape most or all of your marketing initiatives in an anniversary robe, and devote most of your marketing or communications budget to the anniversary.
    • Option 5: Include a small line item for anniversary planning in your marketing budget request early on. That way, you’ll have the ammunition of what you’re going to do and what you’ll achieve—before and during the anniversary year.
  2. You have a budget for some of the anniversary, but not enough.
    • Option 1: Leverage supplier or business partners to help supplement funding for the anniversary.
    • Option 2: Scale back.
    • Option 3: Determine whether some elements related to the anniversary might qualify as capital expenditures—for example, an exhibit at your offices or enhancement of your archives.

Planning Your Anniversary

Pictured: a photograph of a planning session by Sherwin-Williams. The leader of the session is writing out the different audiences Sherwin-Williams intended to target.

Many anniversaries share common ingredients and best practices, but there is no single way to go about planning and implementation. All organizations have different structures, styles and approaches that work for their culture and management model. One of the greatest challenges that organizations face when preparing for an anniversary is the lack of familiarity with this type of initiative. To offset this inexperience, organizations often rely on other recent major undertakings—a new brand rollout, a restructuring, a change management initiative—to apply lessons learned.

Applying what worked well and what didn’t in a comparable initiative can prove useful. However, using an established, proven framework, regardless of the specific approach, can help abbreviate the planning process. Our Anniversary 360° framework helps you think through critical components to deliver a well-planned and well-executed anniversary initiative.

There are four key components to the Anniversary 360° framework:

  1. Vision and Alignment
  2. Stories and Content
  3. Creative Expression
  4. Implementation

Vision and Alignment

Pictured: another photograph from Sherwin-Williams company anniversary planning session. The planning document shows the objectives of the anniversary, the audiences they are targeting, and the steps they will take to meet their objectives.

Without clear vision and alignment among key stakeholders at the outset, anniversary program planning can suffer. A strong program starts with a vision that confirms objectives, audiences, messages and tactics.

The first step is to define success. Specifically, ask your planning team:

  • What are the key strategic priorities for the organization in the next three to five years?
  • How can the anniversary be used as a platform to advance these priorities?

Often, the easiest way to approach this is to get members of your team to imagine a time when the anniversary has been completed. What, realistically, was achieved? How is everyone feeling, within the organization and outside of it? Answering these questions is a critical first step.

Next, prioritize your target audiences, and describe them in as much detail as possible. Instead of just “employees,” break down groups further: new employees, potential recruits, by seniority, headquarters vs. field, hourly vs. salaried, age cohorts, etc.

The third phase is to develop the business case. Many organizations have different templates or case requirements. We specialize in helping client make the strongest business case possible. We understand the key issues, risks and opportunities that come with a company anniversary. The business case typically involves defining the goals, quantifiable measures, expected ROI, key messages and other important considerations, such as major events, rebranding efforts, etc.

Stories and Authentic Content

Pictured: two pages from one of the celebration materials Huntington produced to explain their company's history and the journey they have taken. These two pages come from the start of Chapter 3 of the publication, which examines the years 1873-1892.

Let’s face it. An anniversary doesn’t succeed based on a great strategy but based on how well that strategy is executed. Storytelling is a big part of successfully execution.

People are 22 times more likely to remember and internalize a story than a series of facts or a list of bullet points, according to Jerome Brunner, author of Actual Minds, Possible Worlds.

In recent years, storytelling has become synonymous with marketing. So, as you begin to plan how you will successfully turn your anniversary vision into reality, start with your approach to storytelling.

When we think about storytelling, we think about all of the elements that go into creating what we call the StoryARC.™ Good stories have characters, settings, conflict, danger and resolution. Good stories also have key themes. However, when organizations tell their own stories, they rarely include all these elements. Too often, storytelling in an anniversary is limited to an illustrated or narrated timeline. In other words, a series of facts or a list of bullet points that people are 22 times less likely to remember than a story!

We all know that storytelling is a craft. Define your storytelling focus and enable storytellers to find and use your valuable historical assets, and your anniversary storytelling will be that much more successful.

Creative Expression

Pictured: an artist is sketching out different logos for a company's 200th anniversary celebration.

Successful anniversaries are unique expressions of an organization’s culture and brand. They must align graphic identity and brand standards. The established creative direction and look and feel are then used to engage target audiences through different types of messaging.

Now that you have thought through your vision and storytelling approach, you are in a good position to start developing the tactics that will make the most sense for your organization. Ask yourself a few questions:

  1. What initiatives are you most proud of, or have gotten the best feedback?
  2. What made these initiatives successful? Did they have any common characteristics?
  3. For less successful initiatives, what should have happened differently? Did these initiatives have any common characteristics?

Take note of any key characteristics that should or shouldn’t be present in your anniversary tactics as you develop ideas.

Implementation

Pictured: the exhibit Penske used to celebrate a major corporate anniversary.

In the words of strategy expert Jeroen De Flander, “A strategy, even a great one, doesn’t implement itself.” Having a sound plan and quantifiable objectives is important, but out-of-the-box, extraordinary thinking and effective execution are what participants in the anniversary will remember.

First, identify the organization’s capabilities as well as the gaps that may need to be filled by partners. Understanding time and cost is critical to prioritizing and refining the program. Be honest with yourself and your partners: The ad agency that comes up with fantastic original campaigns may feel boxed in by historical facts. Ensure that some of your partners have experience with programs that involve an organization’s heritage.

Authenticity is key to success. Don’t ignore or whitewash truths from the past. An anniversary program must come across as genuine, true to the company or brand, and unique.

Advertising and Promotion

 

Now that anniversary year is in full swing, it’s time to tell people about it. But people won’t care that it’s the anniversary just because it’s the anniversary. They want to hear substantive stories and meaningful ideas that connect with their emotions and values. If they do, they’ll get to know the brand on a deeper level and grow an affinity for that brand. Ads should draw upon the authentic content created during the buildup to the anniversary.

Messaging can come out in a number of different ways, notably through advertising and social media—engaging everyone from preteens to grandparents. You can harness social media in a variety of ways. Here are a few of our favorites:

  1. Link your anniversary to a trending topic
  2. Develop creative anniversary hashtags
  3. Use for story-gathering and crowdsourcing
  4. Engage with anniversary quizzes and polls

Promoting your anniversary will generate buzz and help to ensure it is widely received. It has the power to instill pride in your internal audiences, strengthen existing consumer relationships and bring new customers into the fold.

Extending Beyond the Anniversary

Just because the anniversary year is over doesn’t mean that the festivities need to stop. You’ve built a foundation for strategic messaging centered on heritage-based authentic content. Now you can use your holistic understanding of the company’s DNA to look for other major milestones to celebrate that will generate buzz. Here are a few offbeat anniversary celebrations that we’ve seen:

  1. A new headquarters, office or factory
  2. A new division or department
  3. A founder’s birthday
  4. A groundbreaking product or patent
  5. Entering a new market or country
  6. An iconic advertising campaign

No two organizations share the same history. Each has different milestones or achievements that they want to highlight. Celebrate what is authentic and unique to your organization, even if it comes in a year not normally associated with an anniversary.

Conclusion

Anniversary programs are not easy to plan and execute. They’re often delegated to a person or group that already has a full load of responsibilities, by people who underestimate the time and cost of a successful program. We hope some of the suggestions in this guide can help you and your company achieve anniversary nirvana.

If you have any questions or would like more information, don’t hesitate to contact us—we’d be happy to help.

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