The Strategic Value of the Corporate Anniversary

WintropAn anniversary is a unique moment in the life of any company. With everyone’s attention focused on the past, there is no better time to show the world how past experience has positioned your company for future success. Far from a distraction or problem to be solved, an anniversary is a strategic opportunity.

Planning for this unfamiliar event, of course, can seem daunting. Faced with a blizzard of choices for how to mark the occasion, the busy marketing director or head of corporate communications will usually look first to the company’s last anniversary for inspiration. Yet in the intervening years the company and the world around it have changed beyond recognition, making whatever was done before largely irrelevant to their needs. So they turn next to peer institutions for guidance, only to find that one size or approach really does not fit all. Strategy, organizational culture, and industry dynamics are often radically different, as indeed is the story itself. Why, they conclude, would they want to do just what another organization has done?

Finally, with time now running short, many companies fall back on “balloons and fireworks.” That is how one senior executive dismissively characterized his own company’s bicentennial celebrations, which featured a glossy publication (more referred to than actually read), an exhibit in headquarters that could not engage more than a small fraction of a global company, and a glitzy marketing campaign trumpeting the company’s longevity without explaining how or why 200 years in business had prepared the company to meet present challenges any better than its competitors.

This all-too-common outcome is the result of a basic misunderstanding: an anniversary is less about the past (where have we been?) than about the future (where are we going?). How, then, can you leverage this rare and important milestone in the life of your organization to help build a successful future?

Three Principles of Effective Anniversaries
Since 1982, Winthrop has consulted on hundreds of anniversaries for companies large and small, young and old, global and local, and we have learned that successful anniversaries adhere to three basic principles:

1. Engaging Content. A good story—compelling, authentic, and true—is the single most important element of any anniversary. However you choose to commemorate that anniversary, whether through books, videos, digital timelines, marketing and public relations initiatives, executive speeches, gala parties, or employee retreats, depends on the story you have to tell. It must not only be entertaining; it must also be rigorous and independent enough to be credible with a skeptical audience both inside and outside the company. This demands high professional standards of research, writing and design.

2. Sensitivity to Context. Your company’s success did not happen in a vacuum. It unfolded against a backdrop of dramatic changes in the global economy, changes that in many cases will have radically transformed how and what the company does, and why. So it is not enough to list various milestones along the way to the anniversary. To fully appreciate the company’s achievements, audiences must understand how they connect to the larger forces to which it has had to adapt. When they do, they will have even more confidence in your ability to adapt to future challenges.

3. Enduring Value. Most anniversary celebrations barely scratch the surface of a company’s complex and often-fascinating story, nor do they attempt to link that story to the company’s strategy and culture going forward. If an anniversary is to have any value after the milestone itself has passed, it must establish an authentic and durable version of the company’s story that will support brand- and institution-building over the long term.

Key Questions
Even if you adhere to these three principles, you will still need to consider several key questions.

1. Purpose. Beyond its most basic function—to celebrate accomplishment—what else do you want your anniversary to achieve? Here are a few ideas that may surprise you: To substantiate key messages? Put adversity in context? Build employee engagement? Connect or even mend fences with key constituencies such as the business media or employees of acquired companies? Capture lessons from the company’s past experience that can be used to align culture to or even shape current business strategy? Remember that the answers to these questions, or even the questions themselves, might be different by the time the anniversary year itself arrives.

2. Audience. There may be substantial differences among the potential audiences for your anniversary: employees, alumni, customers/clients, suppliers, regulators, industry analysts, and the general public. Do not ignore these divergent interests: you will need to adapt your message and thus even the product or channel you choose to reach them.

3. Orientation. From what perspective should you approach your story: from the center (headquarters) or from the periphery (country, regional, or local offices or plants); from the CEO or controlling family, or from employees and professional staff down in the trenches? It is wise to balance different perspectives, lest you overemphasize headquarters or dominant cultures within the company and risk alienating critical audiences.

4. Focus. What is the most important aspect of the company’s story: continuity or change? The founding story or founder/founding generation and the extent to which those values have endured? Or is it a recent generation or current generation that has led the company’s successful adaptation to change over time? Any anniversary involves these aspects in combination but you may want to emphasize one over the other.

5. Logistics
• Who is the driving force behind the anniversary: the Chairman, CEO, or Managing Partner? The head of corporate communications or public affairs? Whoever it is, a strong sponsor is critical to avoid ambivalence or a loss of momentum.
• How much lead time do you have? The more the better: professional research, writing, design, and production all take time. The closer the anniversary deadline gets, the fewer things can be done well.
• Do you intend to mark a specific founding date in the anniversary year, or the whole anniversary year?
• What sort of raw materials do you have at your disposal: documents, historical artifacts, oral histories, current or past exhibits, or film and video? Who at the company, active and retired, would need to be interviewed as part of any research effort?
• Given your audience(s) for the anniversary, what product(s) or event(s) are best suited to reach them?

History Master Plan™
None of these questions has an easy answer. That’s why Winthrop begins most anniversary projects with a preliminary study designed to help you forge consensus around an anniversary plan that is right for you. We call it a History Master Plan™: a systematic, structured approach to anniversary planning. The History Master Plan™, which takes several weeks to prepare, has three elements:

1. A survey of the company’s archival material (in print and digital formats) and other historical artifacts that will serve as one source of insight into the company’s story.

2. Interviews with key stakeholders who will have a perspective on the history of the company and its importance to the anniversary and the company going forward. These interviews will
• identify the nature, purpose, audience, and objectives of the anniversary
• discuss possible applications of the anniversary in areas such as marketing and communications, employee engagement, organizational development, social media outreach, etc.
• capture stories, anecdotes, and insights surrounding key events, decisions, and turning points in the recent history of the company.

3. A survey of documentary and other published material on the company, its leaders (past and present), its markets, and its industry. This will identify the avenues of inquiry needed to place the story in its broader context(s) and to understand the themes that will resonate best with internal and external audiences. At the end of this process, we deliver a report that includes:
• A substantive outline of the key themes and questions to be addressed as part of the anniversary
• A menu of potential applications of the company’s story during the anniversary year, including our recommended option(s) based on a thorough assessment of your needs and opportunities
• An assessment of archival material that will serve as a basis for the professional research needed to support various anniversary products and events
• A project plan with dates, deliverables, and key decision points for the period leading up to and through the anniversary year.

Final Thoughts
Every day that a business opens its doors is another opportunity to fail as well as to succeed. Whether you are celebrating 10 years in business or 200, your anniversary is a testament to success against long odds, and a tribute to the vision and talents of your people. Such a milestone calls for a significant commitment of time and resources befitting any strategic opportunity. When you make that commitment, you’ll find that your anniversary is a powerful tool for shaping your future.

For more information, please contact John Seaman, Director, at (212) 944-4698;

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