Hunker down? Like Hell.

January 15, 2009 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

You’ve heard the business mantra for ’09: “Flat is the new up.” It sounds like the ultimate capitulation to me.This recessionary period marks an extraordinary opportunity for those who have vision, character, and are not motivated by fear to retreat. During the next 12 to 18 months, the groundwork will be laid for both corporate and personal fortunes to be made three to five years out. There is plenty of precedent for this.Many famous brands of today were actually conceived based on leverage points served up by circumstances that surfaced during recessionary periods. Microsoft, Burger King, CNN, MTV, Sports Illustrated and HP are a few of the notables that launched in the haze of economic uncertainty, according to a feature in Inside CRM. And companies like Google, PayPal, eBay, and Salesforce.com thrived through the recessionary period of 2001–2002, and in some instances excelled because of the very conditions causing others to struggle.

In the midst of the worst economic crisis in generations, Business Week published an article in the December 22, 2008, issue arguing that now is perhaps the best time of all to start a bank. “With no bad assets, startups can borrow cheaply, charge plenty, and get snapped up in a recovery,” the subhead reads. In fact, these very conditions helped build personal fortunes for those gutsy individuals who made hay during the S&L crisis in the early 1990s and had their companies “snapped up in the wave of consolidation” that followed.

But using economic turbulence as a leverage point requires an adjustment in perspective for most executives. It’s time to start thinking like a challenger brand marketer. In his seminal book on the subject, “Eating the Big Fish,” Adam Morgan lays out the eight credos of successful challenger brands. The advice goes largely ignored by thriving and successful companies in the good times, but I would argue that every company today is a challenger brand. Every company, regardless of market share or rank in the marketplace, faces the daunting realities presented by consumer contractions in spending and confidence.

One of the key tenants of challenger brand marketing is to figure out how to rewrite the rules of the game so you can win. When playing by the rules that no longer work, it’s time for an aggressive change in direction, not wholesale retreat.

In the heady days of 2005, author Daniel Pink wrote prophetically in his book, “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brained Thinkers Will Rule the Future,” that we are in the midst of a shift from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. He suggests that it will be the ability to conceive of new ideas that cater to consumer desires they don’t currently realize they have that will separate the big winners from the also-rans of the next decade. Pink notes that this shift is being reflected in the hiring and education in Masters of Fine Arts graduates, because these “synthetic thinkers” are gaining considerable traction in the marketplace.

Whatever the source of unconventional thinking in an organization, it’s clear that now is the greatest time in the past decade to get creative across the board. For those who lean into the times and successfully embrace the challenge, the rewards on the other side will be significant. And for those who adopt a “bunker mentality?” They’ll probably get bombed.


Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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