October 4, 2017 • History Factory
Each time a significant milestone arrives, few, if any, planners from previous events are in place to debrief. Even if they were, the world has undergone dramatic change over the last twenty-five years. Corporate anniversaries and celebratory events that might have been applicable in the 1990s would almost certainly be considered out of date in today’s world. In addition to a natural evolution in leadership and employee base, most businesses have been influenced by:
The natural question, of course, is: “What have other companies like us done?” Even good recent case studies are only suggestive, because other companies don’t have the same business situation, or the same culture, or the same heritage or history.
Regardless of differences, all companies face the same dilemma: Corporate anniversaries don’t have inherent meaning or value. The age of an organization says nothing about the strength of its business model, its vitality in terms of product or service innovation(s), or even its culture at any point in time.
Think instead of corporate anniversaries as gumbo. It’s a remarkably familiar dish by name, but no one prepares it the same way; people mix their won tastes and cultures into their gumbos. In fact, each chef might have a few recipes to choose among, depending on which ingredients are freshest and which variation is most appropriate for the occasion.
For corporate anniversary milestones, each organization needs to find what is most meaningful at a given point in time. An invaluable anniversary plan aligns current high-priority business objectives while reinforcing the importance of heritage.
Think ROI: The History Factory believes companies should apply the same rules to planning corporate anniversaries that they apply to other strategic planning and business investing:
“What do we know we need to ensure a strong future for the business?”
While every anniversary should be a unique expression of the organization, all corporate anniversaries, like gumbo, share common ingredients. These common ingredients go beyond tactics and include shared characteristics. Here are some best practices to keep in mind, and some shortcomings to avoid.
Ideally, planning for major corporate anniversaries begins at least two years ahead of time. Even if an organization ultimately decides to limit the investment to a major event or two, early planning makes sure that there is time to execute any program. For instance, suppose that a 100th anniversary was in 2022.
Perhaps the most important reason to begin early involves the question, “Who is doing the anniversary planning?” Companies today typically are complex mixtures of regional, national and perhaps global locations; product divisions; original and acquired businesses; functional and operational employees; and customers, suppliers, and community and national leaders. Planning for an anniversary by engaging these diverse constituencies—either by asking for counsel or actively involving participants from each group—takes time.
Over more than 30 years, each CEO with whom The History Factory has worked concluded that the goal of heritage management is to shape the future, not just reveal the past. Or, as one CEO client said,
“We want to inspire pride in the past and confidence in the future.”
Developing an anniversary master plan provides a common vision and mission. It enables sound decision-making. Starting with a rigorous situation analysis grounds the planning in the present and future.
While the actual planning may be different for each company, the process for engaging numerous stakeholders and building consensus can be quite similar.
Chances are, any corporate anniversary master plan will align with any one or more of four types of activity:
Encompassed within each type of activity is a wide range of possible objectives, as examples below illustrate. However, if corporate anniversaries are to be strategic investments, all tactics and messaging must be tied to anniversary objectives that in turn align with business objectives.
The most difficult part of planning anniversaries might be keeping a thoroughly open mind at the outset of the process. People often feel pressured to make quick decisions and “get on with it.”
“We happily create books for clients,” says Bruce Weindruch, founder and CEO of The History Factory. “However, if there is one thing we really encourage when we talk about corporate anniversaries with clients, it’s this: First, figure out how to take advantage of the milestone to pursue your business objectives. Sometimes, even the word “celebration” can get in the way because we mostly associate the word with things like picnics, galas, logos, banners and special events. But after everything is said and done, and you’re paying the bills, you’ll want to—and should—ask, ‘Did this really help us do what we had to do?’ Strong, open-minded, upfront planning helps you answer, ‘Yes, and here’s the ROI we got.’”
Planning for an anniversary is a balancing act. Recognizing this helps draw attention to all options and the need to align tactics with high-priority outcomes. In other words, not only is there no right or wrong answer, but the purpose of exploring these balances is to ensure that all options are reviewed. In the end, companies decide to limit or expand their investments in their anniversaries based on many factors. The History Factory point of view is that there is great value in making those decisions after all the cards are on the table. The first of these “balances” is the familiar continuum shown below.
One natural temptation upon reaching a milestone is to look back and reminisce. That’s what makes history books the “red roses” of corporate anniversaries. It doesn’t take much exploration and discussion before a critical mental shift takes place. Producing even a museum or a book is about the future. Such tactics should answer the crucial question: What about our history and heritage helps us see, and pursue, the future more clearly? “In fact, at The History Factory our mantra is ‘Start with the Future and Work Back,’” Weindruch says. “Our clients are in business to create the future, not to look back. I’m as fascinated with history as anyone, but my job is to help clients create the future. Interpreting how the heritage of a company helps it see and pursue the future, and finding interesting and persuasive ways to tell these stories, gives anniversaries unique meaning for each company at each milestone.”
The next balance is about where to focus the anniversary’s efforts. Companies often struggle with choosing between an internal and an external audience.
An internal focus refers to employees. An external focus potentially encompasses a wide range of stakeholders, including shareholders, customers, vendors, communities in which offices and facilities are located, experts and academics, government officials, and the media, which help to reach out to those stakeholders.
In practice, these audiences overlap in critical ways. A company may reach out to its employees with the specific intent of reinforcing or changing customer perceptions. Similarly, employees often pay careful attention to their company’s public statements and actions, whether toward customers or government officials. Employee reactions can help strengthen or undermine that messaging.
Regardless of where you set the balance point, there is a crucial mindset issue that establishes how a company defines its anniversary. Thinking of an anniversary as all about the company—with founder stories, timelines, achievements, innovations and the like—limits the conversation. Expanding the vision so that anniversary storytelling relates the company to all its stakeholders and their interests and lives creates a platform for media, speeches, exhibits, publications, websites, and more. The following graphic illustrates such an expansion.
Within an internal audience, there are additional balance points:
These discussions raise a number of issues as a company focuses on employees. The celebration-strategy balance may hold the key. Is the priority to engage employees’ hearts and increase their appreciation for the achievements and culture of the organization? Is the priority to reinforce or reinvigorate aspects of values and culture, and commitment to vision and mission?
Celebration is well-suited to these tasks. Strategy, in this case, refers to increasing employee understanding of and engagement in pursuing specific business strategies, and aligning anniversary messaging and activity to that end.
Celebration and strategy are by no means mutually exclusive. Hearts and minds are yet another balance. In fact, the “tools” of celebration such as storytelling, imagery, icons and symbols, design, and events (sometimes including music, speeches, and pageantry) are meant to appeal to both hearts and minds.
The issues of Top-Down/Bottom-Up, Home Office/Field, and Local/Global also require exploration and discussion. How much of the anniversary is “owned” by employees and how much is directed by management? How does an anniversary become a positive in a highly diverse organization? The larger, more diverse and more spread out a company is, the more complex the discussion.
All companies naturally want branding discipline, continuity of message and economies of scale. How do you balance these real business needs with the objectives of genuinely engaging employees who may not share the dominant culture or history? How does a company that has grown significantly through acquisition use an anniversary to bring everyone together rather than draw attention to separate histories? Do you engage a diverse group of employees in discussing and addressing these issues, and if so, how? This is a time- and resource-intensive exercise; however, doing it right creates real value and progress toward objectives well before the anniversary year begins.
External outreach itself can be divided into at least three overlapping categories:
How much should a company take its competitors into account when planning an anniversary? Is part of its thinking comparative? Again, there is no right answer, just the value in making sure all angles have been explored before a decision is made.
Particularly in today’s media-rich, 24-hour communications environment, it may be best to look at the three external categories as intersecting circles, with the innermost segment where all three circles intersect being a sweet spot corporate anniversaries can cater to. That’s the ultimate in alignment but also in interconnectedness: brand perceptions influence policy, and policy positions and behavior influence brand perceptions. For instance, the recent clamor to be seen as “green” is a strong example. An anniversary program, for its part, might emphasize the environmental awareness throughout a company’s history, and how its current culture continues to support such efforts.
Scaling it down, the same theme could be focused mainly on customers or communities. Scaling it up, a green campaign easily can involve internal as well as external audiences. Themes that have similar potential include innovation, achievement, community involvement, ethics and service.
Pushing the green example further brings up an important issue. Few organizations with long histories will have unassailable green credentials. There will be blemishes and, in some instances, truly dark places. However, this is true for any company and almost any issue. As with all complex messages, credibility and authenticity are essential, but purity is not. This is as true for employees as it is for external stakeholders.
Being able to demonstrate, even tangentially, that the green impulse has been continuous throughout a company’s history and now will be a major initiative going forward, can be credible. Stories from the past and present that illustrate that theme can help add to that credibility and authenticity. However, if the messaging isn’t perceived as genuine, the result may be worse than silence.
Where do we start? This is a common question we hear from many leaders and their teams as they begin to prepare for their organization’s milestone anniversary.
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. This approach has merit, but still fails to capture some of the nuances particular to an anniversary initiative.
While many corporate anniversaries share common ingredients and best practices, 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. However, regardless of the specific approach, in this white paper we’ve emphasized that early planning is ideal and a master planning process is critical.
When beginning your master planning process, consider a framework that can be applied to how any organization plans and implements the anniversary. All of the components and details of planning and implementation can be categorized in one of four areas of the below framework:
For more ideas about how to mark your corporate anniversary, check out our comprehensive Guide to Celebrating Your Company Anniversary.