Thursday, 23 July 2009

Anniversary heaven

What is it about years that end in 4? or 9?

In 1909 the 'Amazing Oxygen Washer' was launched in the UK. Persil. The current TV ads give a delightful amble through the last 50 or so years of persuading Mum that her kids will love her more if she keeps their clothes clean. And yes 100 years is indeed an achievement to be celebrated. But it seems that today's rather unsettling economic climate makes it even more important. I have never noticed so many significant anniversaries being so vociferously celebrated.

The connection with the past, being here for the long-term, having bricks and mortar behind you, having a heritage, a provenance, a human core, seem to be more important than ever. Brands depend on a central idea that outlives the short-term ups and downs, that makes a connection with its customers. Those ideas are damaged by thoughtless, 'commercial' decisions and enhanced by heart-warming, well-rooted endeavours.
25th Birthday Cake
The human side of Virgin Atlantic, celebrating its 25th anniversary, has always been embodied by Richard Branson. And sexist or not, its recent advertising has capitalised on its reputation for beautiful girls and glamour. Virgin has taken that opportunity, only available to those who do have something to celebrate, to demonstrate their comparative age and reliability in a fairly threatened business sector. Other things that are celebrating 25 years - the launch of the Apple Mac and Michael Jackson's Thriller. Of course 2009 may now be a rather more poignant Michael Jackson anniversary.
Whilst you can only have a good anniversary year if you clock up a reasonable number - which has to end in 0 or 5, it does seem more people are taking the opportunity this year than usual. It was indeed 200 years since Charles Darwin was born and 250 years since the founding of Kew Gardens, taking its year if 'birth' from the date that William Alton was appointed to take care of and expand the gardens for Princess Augusta. It is 200 years since Arthur Guinness signed the contract for his brewery in Dublin, and started brewing porter and ale, 80 years since the first Guinness advertising in 1929. And, wow, 800 years since the founding of Cambridge University. All fantastically great achievements, but probably all needed a little bit of extra research to firm up on the best date to actually celebrate.

The celebrations are a welcome relief in the doom and gloom of this recession-laden time, don't require any new investment and elevate the discussion to something higher than just survival (which for most of us today is achievement enough).
Probably the most effective anniversary from the 'it wasn't that important a number but it's good enough for our purposes' perspective is Marks and Spencer. 125 years is a great number of years, but I think more importantly has given M&S a reason and focus to their communications, an effective brand story that links them back to what we all feel is important in life, matching nicely the slightly more make-do-and-mend mood in the air, and giving them lots of new product and packaging ideas. Or as The Guardian put it, "Marks and Spencer have jumped on the nostalgia bandwagon." They even had 'Penny Bazaar' days selling certain items for 1p. It certainly stirred up some news stories and plenty of tweeting.

Writing in January, Lucy Barrett had warm things to say about the Virgin Atlantic campaign, including 'The ad portrays a brand with self-belief' but also had a dire warning for another brand, "And I may be wrong, but there is one birthday celebration I can see being put on ice. This year will mark 125 years since Michael Marks, a Russia-born Polish refugee, opened a stall at Leeds Kirkgate Market. He went on to build the empire that we know as Marks & Spencer. Although it has 100 years on Virgin Atlantic, given its Christmas sales, gloomy outlook and store closures, don't hold your breath for the retail chain to throw a spectacular party. And it would be right not to. A milestone can be in danger of being a millstone if it is flagged up at the wrong time." Ah well.

If this year is anniversary heaven, what will next year bring?