January 5, 2021 • History Factory
Celebrating a 100th birthday as an organization is a big achievement. Of course, with the incessant change and dynamic market conditions that most organizations face, any milestone is worth celebrating, whether it’s 10 years in business, 25 years, 50 or even more. Yet 100 years is such a rare achievement that we’ve named it: a centennial.
So if your organization is about to hit the magic 100, there’s a lot to work out to maximize the opportunity. Here’s a list of 10 things you need to know when planning for your anniversary. Follow these, and you’ll be well on your way to the next 100 years.
The centennial provides an opportunity to tell your organization’s origin story, demonstrate growth and evolution, and set the stage for the future. Every organization has followed its own trajectory and has a unique story derived from its actions and its people over time. Unlike a 10th or 20th anniversary, a 100th won’t have anyone to tell the origin story firsthand, so that story must be conveyed through the centennial celebration instead.
Obviously, a company cannot bring back its founder in person on its 100th, but there are ways to amplify the founder’s voice. A centennial presents a good opportunity to draw upon the company’s founding ethos and uncover, revitalize, and reinterpret founding thoughts and words as a means of propelling the company forward.
A good example of a company highlighting its values is Graybar, a leading employee-owned distributor serving the construction, industry, utility, commercial and institutional markets. It recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. In researching the company, History Factory uncovered a future-looking passage from the original writings of founder Elisha Gray. A chapter in Gray’s book was titled “Powering the New Era,” and it provided a startlingly accurate forecast of the future. We built Graybar’s entire anniversary program around the title of that chapter and infused Gray’s technology-focused optimism throughout the anniversary to connect the present with a founder who died over a century ago.
A study by Bain & Company found that as companies age and scale, they lose what is called the Founder’s Mentality®. They stray from the agility, speed and adaptability that made them insurgents in their markets. In short, companies that are run by their founders tend to outperform those that are not. To stay ahead at 100 years old, companies need to embody the ethos and beliefs of the founder and early pioneers at the company. A centennial provides an opportunity to remind employees, customers and other stakeholders what it was that you’ve always stood for and what makes you great. As History Factory founder Bruce Weindruch often says, you’re not good because you’re old, you’re old because you’re good. Remind people what has made you who you are and the uniqueness of your organizational culture and belief system.
We’ve seen many organizations start with 100th-anniversary tactics, then try to work out their objectives. That’s the opposite of how we recommend approaching an anniversary program. When celebrating 100 years, few companies can resist the temptation to brainstorm a slate of ideas related to the number—100 factoids, 100 social posts, 100 hours of charity work, 100 days of savings, and so on. Anything parceled into “100” becomes a tactic. But you can do better. Avoid the cliche to help your organization stand apart from others and reinforce what makes you special. The number is not the message; the number is the excuse for the message about what you stand for and why you’ve succeeded.
Anniversaries tend to reveal to companies the sorry state of their historical assets, including old images, videos, papers, artifacts and other items. After all, when trying to tell any story of the company’s past, it helps to have easy access to the historical items and insights to authenticate and enliven the tale. A box of old papers stashed in a dead letter office won’t suffice. A digital file buried in a crush of data from a standard data backup service isn’t easy to retrieve. Video assets held on obsolete formats—think videocassette or Micro-DV—aren’t useful without conversion to a modern format.
Use the excuse of your 100th to rectify this situation, not only for what you’ll need for your centennial but for future company milestones as well. Consider building an archives. If you already have one, make sure that it’s up to date and adheres to current standards for preservation and access. Fill in the gaps in the collection. And digitize what you have, to preserve and provide ongoing utility.
It may sound strange to recommend that for a 100th anniversary, an organization should focus on its future, but it’s true. The most successful anniversaries are those in which the past is seamlessly connected to where the company is headed tomorrow. It’s a delicate balancing act. If you’re too focused on the past, the message becomes myopic; if you’re too focused on the future, then anniversary messaging becomes moot. Use the 100th to demonstrate not just how far you’ve come but also where you’re headed. Balance past and future in everything you execute.
CSR initiatives for many organizations are now commonplace. But when a campaign doesn’t connect to the organization’s purpose, it risks superficiality or inauthenticity. Ground your giving in “shared value,” a more powerful form of philanthropy that aims to make a meaningful, symbolic difference. Centennials provide a unique platform to either restate or redirect organizational philanthropy and set out a platform to benefit future generations.
For its 100th anniversary, the San Diego Zoo reaffirmed its mission for wildlife conservation and education and animal care—principles promoted since its founding in 1916 by Dr. Harry Wegeforth. The company used its anniversary platform to promote existing conservation efforts worldwide and also launched a five-year plan that aimed to end extinction, including raising over $400 million for the cause.
To reach 100 years in existence, your organization must have been resilient. It’s overcome a World War, the Great Depression, 9/11 and more. It’s seen times of boom and bust, sometimes as part of the greater economy and sometimes specific to its own markets. It’s witnessed new competitors entering the scene and older competitors seeking an edge. In the last year, it’s survived a global pandemic. Throughout it all, your organization has been resilient. That message needs to come through loud and clear at the centennial, even if it’s implicit throughout.
For most 100-year-old companies, an innovation kick-started the organization in the first place, either by creating a new market or by disrupting an existing one. Over 100 years, innovation has played a critical role in your organization’s development. New products and services may have opened new markets. New processes and technologies might have dramatically changed how you do business. Highlighting innovations of the past is an excellent means to reinforce a culture of innovation, setting the course for a bright future.
Of course, companies of 100-plus years rarely make the same products as they did when they first started. For instance, Coca-Cola started as a health tonic in the late 1800s. IBM began as a manufacturer of machines that included precursors of its current offerings—like tabulating and punch-card machines—as well as products such as meat and cheese slicers. In the case of IBM, it highlighted its contributions to society through what the organization called “deep content,” organized around a centerpiece centennial book: “Making the World Work Better: The Ideas That Shaped a Century and a Company.”
Whether a company’s expansion has been regional or global, one thing is for sure: It has grown over the last century. Simply recounting the story of the company’s founding might not resonate with workers in new geographic locations or with organizations that were acquired along the way.
Take the example of Whirlpool, the multinational leader in appliance manufacturing. As the company’s 100th anniversary approached, History Factory was hired to help reimagine the corporate story, which previously had focused on North America. The company believed—and History Factory concurred—that the rags-to-riches, bootstrap story of Midwestern entrepreneurs might not resonate in new regions such as Latin America and India or highlight Whirlpool as a truly global industry leader. Through careful archival research and a worldwide archival discovery program, we retooled the story with a more global focus. The results were a coffee-table history publication, a content bank featuring global stories of innovation, and a new training initiative that informed and inspired the global workforce. This comprehensive campaign allowed the company to begin its second century on a solidly global footing.
We always recommend that organizations start any anniversary planning as early as possible. Since centennials tend to be bigger and broader than most milestones, it makes sense to allow as much lead time as possible. Doing that, and bearing in mind the 10 suggestions in this article, should lead to a highly successful 100th anniversary program for any organization.
For ideas on how to celebrate an upcoming corporate milestone, check out our comprehensive guide to company anniversaries.
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