Anniversaries: Careful with the birthday party

Brand birthdays can provide a welcome awareness boost, but avoid cliches and being overcommercial, writes Adam Hill.

Products from pants to pop stars, from Hans Christian Andersen to chocolate, have successfully been promoted by brand birthdays. One of the biggest calendar tie-ins this year promises to be Cadbury Dairy Milk, which is kicking off 2005 with a £5m increase in its marcoms spend to cash in on its centenary.

But of course, some kind of return, in awareness if not necessarily in sales, is clearly vital. Campaigns around birthdays could include an anniversary statement, a new vision, new strategy, a product announcement or simply increased opportunities for networking and relationship-building. But adding something to the perception of the brand, rather than simply holding a birthday party, is key. Brands2Life co-founder Sarah Scales warns: 'You need to use it as the platform for a business objective, to try to hook in something that gives substance. It won't be news in itself.'

Taylor Herring Communications founder James Herring says: 'It's a universally recognised opportunity to fly the flag and from the media point of view it provides the hook to create interest.' The agency's campaign to mark 25 years of adult-oriented comic Viz last year did include a party, but it was the trick of getting guests such as Peter Stringfellow to choose between badges saying 'A-list' or 'D-list' that gave showbiz columnists something to write about. Targeting celebrity fans, such as Jeremy Clarkson, with bespoke comic strips also helped leading to broadcast, broadsheet, tabloid and glossy coverage that focused on Viz's cultural position in British society. Newsstand circulation of the anniversary edition showed a 25 per cent increase.

The temptation at anniversaries is to utilise archive material to remind people why the brand is so great in the first place. However, Henry's House founder and MD Julian Henry warns: 'All brands are the sum of what they've done over time. But when this is presented to a contemporary audience, it can look dusty, retro or kitsch. If people don't put the current climate to the front of their planning, it can look cheesy. For example, music repackaging for bands such as The Beatles has been done well but there is a limited amount of times it can work.'

Looking forward

Henry recognises the dangers here but says whether it's an 18th birthday or the celebration of a century in business, there is no reason why nostalgia celebrations should backfire. 'In the context of a wider PR programme it should work, but a campaign needs to be well managed and it's important that you're presenting exciting new work and looking forward, putting the next 50 years, say, right up front,' he says Cambridge University, currently looking for PR support for its 800th anniversary celebrations in 2009, should perhaps take note.

Car manufacturers like a good anniversary. The centenary of the Ford Motor Company in 2003 was marked by a Model T Ford rally across the US and the first solo concert by Beyonce Knowles, while Ferrari virtually took over Rome for its 75th birthday last year. Aston Martin is celebrating its 100th birthday in nine years' time, and head of PR Tim Watson is probably only half joking when he says he is already planning for it. A special 2014 version of the famous car is unlikely, he says: 'An English brand such as Aston needs to be understated, but it is a tightrope, since you want the exposure from the anniversary. Part of the myth about Aston is in respect for the company because it has managed to survive.

It's been close to the edge a few times but kept going. But we can't keep relying on our history.'

Yet heritage is there for young people in particular to drill down into.

In a 1998 campaign to emphasise the importance of reading, World Book Day was commemorated on 23 April: Shakespeare's birthday. The publishing and bookselling industries received support from the BBC, Government and other agencies, with every child in full-time education between the ages of four and 18 given a £1 book voucher. Total weekly book sales rose from 1,178,186 the week before, to 1,576,544 in the week after the event.

Birthday campaigns certainly have the ability to shift units: The Spectator magazine's 175th anniversary anthology issue sold more than 20,000 copies, 4,000 more than the usual weekly edition, while sales of the title itself were also up following the campaign.

Such campaigns can also be used to reignite past glory. Hasbro UK's 20th anniversary celebrations for its My Little Pony brand in 2003 positioned the toy as the latest girls' fashion craze. Mason Williams' campaign for the relaunch targeted nostalgic mothers, children and collectors. A year later, one million toys had been sold - not bad for a brand which ceased manufacturing in 1990 in the face of competition from other, hipper, toys.

London Fashion Week designers created 1980s-inspired outfits for the brand, while celebrity owners of the original, such as Beyonce (again), were sent the new model. The campaign also publicised other retro toys, encouraging articles about a new trend, rather than just blurb about My Little Pony.

As Independent on Sunday reporter Jonathan Thompson commented at the time: 'It didn't feel product-led at all.'

The soft pedal

The 30th anniversary campaign last year for children's TV show Bagpuss also wisely soft-pedalled on the merchandising side of things, despite the imminent launch of a new toy product, and focused instead on giving access to the programme's creators and original actors. Merchandise sold on the Bagpuss online shop tripled following the campaign.

When a product has already sold 150 million units, another approach may be needed as a means of maintaining awareness. In 1996, the Waddingtons PR team tied the 50th birthday of board game Cluedo to its own mystery: the disappearance of Professor Plum's creator, Anthony Pratt. The manufacturer had lost touch with him years before and launched a nationwide search via press release, complete with a hotline for sightings. The fact that he had died two years previously did not hamper the story, particularly in papers including The Daily Telegraph, with his daughter and great nephew being invited to a commemorative party.

Anniversaries other than birthdays can be used by brands to build awareness and boost sales, but Damian Peachy, former Phones4u head of PR and sponsorship, now consultant to Paratus Communications, advises steering clear of popular celebrations such as Valentine's Day and Father's Day. 'There might be some incredible angle a brand can come up with, but if not then my advice would be to leave well alone,' he says. 'It is an incredibly cluttered marketplace.'

Elsewhere Lansons Communications cleverly used 2003's 20th anniversary of the introduction of the pound coin to highlight Liverpool Victoria's financial products. The mutual's lifeblood - small monthly investments from policyholders - chimed with research showing that £300m in pound coins has gone missing since the launch. Nationals and regionals carried the message to thirtysomethings with children, that this 'loose change' would have been far better invested in the client's products. Mail on Sunday personal finance editor Jeff Prestridge says: 'It was not your typical financial product story that we tend to file in the bin. Slightly bizarre stories provoke interest.'

Anniversaries are not always an excuse for gift-wrapping. Asked to cite a great example of making one work well, several PROs mention last year's 60th anniversary of D-Day.

Although in this case the understanding of past generations' sacrifice, rather than selling a product, was the aim, the principle remains. Anniversaries provide a vehicle for raising awareness without the need overtly to push your commercial message.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

10 Wonderbra - The bra range this year celebrated its tenth birthday, with owner Sara Lee targeting 30 to 45-year olds and discounting prices to 1994 levels

20 EastEnders - The BBC's long-running soap will be two decades old in February with heavy media relations activity planned

25 Camp Beaumont - The kids' activity holiday firm is basing its campaign on a positive effect on child obesity, health and security for its quarter century

70 Elvis Presley - SonyBMG is re-releasing Elvis's 18 number-one singles over 18 consecutive weeks from January to April 2005 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the birth of 'The King'

100 Chelsea Football Club - Umbro is to launch a commemorative kit for the club's centenary this May and expects a sales boost for its core sportswear brand Evolution X

200 Hans Christian Andersen - The Danish Tourist Board is preparing for bicentennial of the birth of its most famous literary son during 2005.

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