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Marking an Anniversary in Times of Uncertainty

August 13, 2019 • Paul Woolf

Long-term planning during any economic cycle is challenging, like navigating a ship through hazardous seas. Just this week, we heard that while unemployment remains at historic lows, the Fed is concerned enough about slowing economic growth to lower the base interest rate for the first time in 10 years. Headlines scream of trade wars and real wars, sending the stock market into wild swings in anticipation of what may or may not happen.

It’s almost always uncertain at a national level, but for individual businesses, the uncertainty can be overwhelming. Irregular business cycles, unexpected revenue blips, quarterly earnings misses, changes in government policy, changes in leadership or ownership—all can wreak havoc on attempts to plan for the future. Against this backdrop, companies approaching a major milestone or anniversary face a challenge. Typically, anniversaries require 18 to 24 months of advance planning to be effective. How can you plan when the only certainty is that your milestone or anniversary will happen on a specific date?

We’ve worked with clients facing a wide variety of scenarios as their anniversary approached—from last-minute CEO transitions to mergers and acquisitions. Here, let’s focus on three broad scenarios and discuss various anniversary planning considerations for each.

Scenario One:  Business Downturn

In this scenario, results aren’t great or are below expectations, but no repercussions have occurred (yet). There’s a definite negative vibe culturally. Companies that have embarked on planning their anniversary may find quarterly earnings shortfalls or other evidence of a downturn particularly irksome when trying to get funding and other support for anniversary programming. Is the downturn a blip in performance, with confidence still high for a rebound, or is it more of a segue to more serious performance slippage?

If you face this situation, caution is the best approach to anniversary planning. This means avoiding high-profile, costly events or displays unless there’s a strong business rationale to help justify the expense.

Using the anniversary to drive revenue growth—such as “save 25% on our 25th”—can align promotional imperatives with the milestone in a way that is justifiable to cautious purse-string holders.

Finally—and this is more about nuance than hard-nosed recommendation—make the milestone more about commemorating the company’s history than celebrating. If performance blips become recurrent, celebrations tend to fall flat and can even backfire, so keep the tone low key.

Scenario Two: Layoffs and/or Cutbacks

In this scenario, the company has responded to poorer-than-expected results or the anticipation of a future downturn by taking action. Unfortunately, it’s common for anniversary planners to see their program pulled due to layoffs or budget cuts. In these circumstances—assuming the anniversary budget isn’t eliminated entirely—some of the recommendations from Scenario One makes sense, but with a notable addition. Messaging and focus may need to be skewed more toward internal communications, bolstering those who survived the layoffs in what is likely a negative work environment. One of the most important messages is that the company faced challenging or similar circumstances in the past and came out stronger. One such story is how Stanley Tools kept staff employed during the Great Depression by inventing the Stanlo children’s toy, a precursor to LEGOs, to keep its metalworks running when traditional work dried up.

Scenario Three: Uncertain Headwinds

In this scenario, there’s no particularly bad news and no advance repercussions, but there’s a decided unease, particularly with senior leadership, that there may be turbulent times ahead. In some ways, this scenario is the toughest to navigate, as there is no clear sign of how things might transpire and therefore no way to anticipate which programs will be criticized as overly elaborate or unjustifiable. Budget holders may be hesitant to commit to investments until the last minute, “just in case.”

Faced with these circumstances, it’s vital that anniversary planners stay focused on achieving business goals without appearing lavish. Promoting unity and memorability is important. It’s also important in this scenario to have a contingency plan for all aspects of the anniversary. Choose your theme carefully. For example, “100 Years of Growth” will resonate like a drunken groom at a wedding if the milestone year yields a reduction in force. Develop options where less expensive adaptations are possible: Programs that involve flying in every employee from all regional offices could become virtual or regionalized, cutting the travel expense.

Cooler Heads Prevail

Despite the longer lead time for planning an anniversary program versus a short-term sales promotion, having foresight and plenty of Plan Bs can help anniversary teams navigate the turbulent waters of corporate life as an anniversary approaches. Stay focused on objectives and measurable goals, ensure investments are justified based on acceptable metrics for success, and above all, keep calm when the seas are rough.

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