Jane Lewis examines the comeback of the corporate anthem
2002 will hardly go down as a stellar year for business ethics but, when it
comes to trumpeting corporate values, it can only be described as evergreen. In
defiance of fraud, financial fiddling and encircling market gloom, corporate
anthems have made the kind of comeback that most ageing rockers can only dream
Who cares about falling sales, slashed pensions and crumbling managerial
edifices, when you can rally morale with a syncopated light rock blinder that
en-cap-sul-ates your vision, yeah, and ultimate dest-in-ee?
As with all showbiz dreams, the craze for corporate anthems – which hit
fever pitch around April this year – can boast truly humble beginnings.
Inspired by a chance hearing of KPMG’s punchy number, Our Vision of Global
Strategy (‘We’re as strong as can be/A dream of power and energy’),
London-based web programmer Chris Raettig decided to create "a compendium
of corporate cringe" and post it online.
The tunes he found were so bad, they were actually "rather good",
he claims. "Rather like movies that are so execrable they acquire a
cult-like status." You can say that again. Word of Raettig’s compendium –
featuring classics from IBM, Deutsche Bank, Ericsson, McKinsey & Co, and
Monday, the consulting arm of PricewaterhouseCoopers sold to IBM, among others
– spread so quickly that within weeks, the site had crashed due to over demand.
No doubt realising a great marketing opportunity, the technology newsletter
ZDnet took over the project and began compiling an official top 20 based on
visitors’ votes. The upshot, notes one commentator, was a kind of "Pop
Idol for management consultants". When Ernst & Young released a track
entitled We’re Gonna be Number One, suspicions were aroused that it had been
recorded specially for the anthem chart.
Nonetheless, the volume of visitors to the site – particularly those who
actually took the trouble to download their favourite tunes – had now assumed
The most popular download choice, McKinsey & Co’s stirring McKC, notched
up some 26,000 downloads. As ZDnet’s chart maestro Peter Judge pointed out, the
song’s popularity was such that, had it been translated into record sales, it
would have been propelled into the top 10 of the UK charts (according to figures
quoted by the Official UK Charts Company, it takes an average of 22,000 sales
for a single to reach the number 10 position).
"Anthems are a form of industrial folklore," Judge says.
"While the enjoyment is partly ironic, it is nonetheless real." And who’s
to say what great things the nation as a whole might have achieved had the
McKinsey anthem gone on general release? ‘Challenges engage us/Nothing really
phases us/Come hell or high water/You can count on us!’
Apparently embarrassed by its chart-topping success, McKinsey tried to play
things down. "It’s not an official anthem," insisted a spokesman.
"It is just a group of people in our research and information unit getting
together to have some fun."
Nonetheless, says Judge, it is clear that some companies take their musical
compositions incredibly seriously. Not content with just one version of Our
Vision of Global Strategy, for instance, KPMG also released a jungle version
and a hard rock remix featuring samples from The Clash’s Clampdown. IBM, meanwhile,
gave its rabble-raising number, Ever Onward, a considerable boost by releasing
a flash animation to accompany it; an artistic feat "that takes pop videos
to a whole new level", says Judge.
The most astonishing thing about all this – to anyone not wholly immersed in
the contemporary corporate world – is that anthem composition is clearly
established practice in vast numbers of western blue-chip companies. All these
years, we have been sniggering at the Japanese proclivity for beginning the day
with rousing sing-along tributes to corporate values/Mount Fuji/the appliance
of Zen to business, while doing much the same ourselves.
Perhaps the only outstanding difference is that most western companies still
balk at the idea of lining up staff in matching uniforms to perform group
callisthenics while the anthem is played. Most, but not all. Asda’s reported
habit of encouraging staff to slap their back pockets while chanting A-S-D-A in
unison surely comes fairly close.
Thus, while many people agree with Judge that the new craze for anthems
constitutes "corporate image manipulation at its worst" – the same
type of thinking that leads to name changes such as Consignia – others see as
an important organisational tool that encourages loyalty and performance.
Indeed, some marketing and HR departments defend the process as ‘aural
branding’. As one proponent argues: "Few things in the world can equal the
power of music", and promoting a stirring anthem is "all about
slotting into 360-degree branding".
The practice has also found itself in tune with academia. According to John
Pliniussen, professor of marketing at Queen’s University, Canada, when it comes
to selecting a company to work for, "the difference between ordinary and
extraordinary companies are the little extras. Corporate anthems show… that
whoever is in charge in HR of developing corporate morale or loyalty is putting
another candle on the cake."
Certainly, the practice has been going on for years. Long established
companies such as IBM boast a back catalogue of corporate songs stretching into
the hundreds, though some, admittedly, are bastardised versions of established
standards. Try this to the tune of Jingle Bells : ‘IBM, happy men, smiling all
the way/Oh what fun it is to sell our products night and day!’.
Indeed, as Jonathan Ward points out in his interesting paper A History of
Corporate Tunes, many early corporate record releases have now achieved the
status of collectors’ items. What’s more, he says, many made use of "some
wonderful songwriters". For instance, the partnership responsible for
Ford’s uplifting tribute to its tractor salesmen went on to write Fiddler on
Company songs can also offer an invaluable insight into social history. The
oil company Exxon’s 1979 number Put Yourself in their Shoes (specifically
written for the wives of its petrol station managers), is a case in point, and
– with its exhortation to give Exxon hubbies the "premium attention"
they need – clearly owes a good deal to Tammy Wynette.
But before you rush out post-haste to commission Mike Batt (author of
William Hague’s inspiring 2001 election theme), it is as well to consider that
for every corporate anthem hit, there are thousands of embarrassing misses.
"Above a certain level in any company, executives operate in an
environment where reality doesn’t intrude much," says Judge. And many
songs, penned in a spirit of true optimism, are sung with subversive relish by
disgruntled wage slaves.
Moreover, when the bad times roll, the heady boasts encapsulated in even the
most modest corporate anthem can come back to haunt big-time. As a recent US
offering, apparently written in tribute to the infamous Arthur Andersen by an
erstwhile client, runs: ‘Dear Arthur Andersen/Your grave we’ve dug/You are daft
twits/Such half wits/How we’d lie! Laws defy!/And you’d shrug.’
PS: the phenomenon of the corporate anthem may have peaked as suddenly as it
reappeared. In recent months the scene seems to have gone worryingly quiet.
Could it be that petty fears of fiddling while Rome burns have put the
corporate songbirds to flight? Although you are still strongly urged to visit
www.zdnet.com to check out the classics on offer, you may be disappointed to
discover that the chart has not been updated for some time. Whatever has
happened to the spirit of co-operation, innovation, imagination and total
global inspiration? Get your act together guys. As Novell’s song so inspiringly
puts it: Heyy! Heyy! These are Brainshare Days!