Corporate anniversary celebrations are a cornerstone of what we do at History Factory, but the way that they’re celebrated is in constant flux, and varies year to year, let alone decade to decade. In this installment of our Looking Ahead series, Sam Grabel sat down with Jason Dressel, History Factory’s managing director of client strategy and development, and Marissa Piette, senior director of client services, to discuss the future of corporate anniversaries.
In what ways are corporate milestones/anniversaries currently celebrated? How has that changed over the past 10 to 20 years?
Jason Dressel: Having been here at History Factory for the past 20 years, it’s been interesting to see how the tone of anniversaries has evolved based on the broader economic environment. For the most part, anniversary milestones are viewed as celebratory, once-in-a-generation occasions. Yet, during the Great Recession and the uncertain economic times that followed it, anniversaries were a little more “commemorated” than “celebrated.”
With the economic expansion of the past several years, enterprises have returned to a more celebratory and opportunistic approach versus a more cautionary and constrained mindset. What’s interesting is that organizations have concluded that recognizing their anniversary milestones in a substantial and meaningful way is a must-have activity, in good times and bad. But how they go about that differs, given the culture of the organization and the broader context of the environment at that time.
Marissa Piette: In the same way that organizations take unique approaches to marketing, advertising and internal communications campaigns, anniversary milestones can take on a very different look, depending on who is celebrating and what their goals are.
Common best practices tend to guide well-executed anniversary programs, and those usually follow established marcomms principles. We’ve seen an evolution in the past 10 to 20 years in how anniversary programs are approached and implemented in a couple of ways: first, in terms of the tactics and channels used. Twitter and Instagram didn’t exist 20 years ago. Also, we’ve seen an increase in investment in and prominence of anniversary programs in light of a strong economy and the increasing importance of brand authenticity, which anniversaries directly support.
What is in store for the future of corporate anniversaries? What will a company milestone look like in a decade? What do you see as the defining agents of change?
JD: In general, organizations and brands continue to be challenged by a lack of trust among constituencies and a risk of becoming commoditized. As trite as it sounds, that’s why storytelling, content marketing and organizational purpose have been so prevalent—and there’s no sign that their relevance will fade.
Increasingly, anniversaries are viewed as unique opportunities to engage constituents in different ways and tell authentic stories that can cut through the clutter and make a connection. It’s always dangerous to predict the future, but it’s probably not going out on a limb to speculate that continued improvements in data analytics and storytelling technology like VR and AR are going to create more opportunities for content customization and personalization that anniversary campaigns will benefit from.
MP: Anniversaries are an opportune moment to shine a greater spotlight on the ways that brands are remaining true to their character, are good corporate citizens, are standing up for something—and oftentimes, how they have been for years. Anniversaries have proved and will continue to prove to be a valuable starting point for brands that have not done a good job of talking about this in the past, given the amount of self-reflection and story development that tends to happen around these milestones. In my view, the opportunity to tell substantive brand stories that go beyond your run-of-the-mill brand or marketing messaging is an exciting area where corporate anniversaries will continue to have impact and value. While the fundamentals of good storytelling and communications won’t change, I think we’ll see an ever-increasing level of sophistication in the commemoration and marketing of these milestones.
With once-emerging technologies like VR and AR coming into the mainstream, an organization’s ability to tell meaningful and compelling brand stories will only improve.
JD: Anniversaries are still generally underlooked and often underestimated by many for what they can achieve until they have experienced it firsthand. That’s starting to change. When we hear before-and-after stories from executives and managers who have gone through the experience of implementing an anniversary, we are normally hearing from a new convert.
And like marketing and communications endeavors more broadly, the expectations associated with an anniversary are rising. Years ago, the conventional wisdom among most was that an anniversary began with a logo, a party, some swag and maybe a history book. The marketers and communicators who viewed it as a strategic opportunity were few and far between, much less those who looked to measure an anniversary milestone’s impact. The quantitative and qualitative expectations are much higher now, especially for the most sophisticated companies and brands, which innately understand the value of effective marketing and communications.
MP: The opportunities for storytelling using virtual and augmented reality are immense—specifically, the ability to “transport” ourselves to the past to better understand a topic, an event, a person, a place. What can’t be translated adequately through text in a book, or even through a video, can not only be seen but also experienced in context using these technologies. It’s going to supercharge storytelling in the future.
I hate to call authenticity a trend, but the fact is, there’s been increased focus on how brands can do more than just deliver great products or services. Consumers are increasingly aligning themselves with principled brands, and organizations are competing to hire talent that value workplaces with great cultures and strong core values. Authentic brands are winning.