During the Global Financial Crisis, I noticed that some companies suffering from declining revenues decided to go for almost any business from anyone in order to survive. This approach usually produced short-term relief but hurt them later.
For example, a premium software development company that suddenly lost its largest client made no cost reductions, discounted its fees, and ended up in a vicious cycle leading to its eventual demise. On the other hand, companies which doubled down on their core offer, reduced costs (including making redundancies), often weathered the storm and survived.
I remember one company particularly well that took the second approach.
It was a well-established family owned business that recycled corporates’ unwanted IT equipment. Over the years it had built a dedicated team with a really positive "can-do" culture. They all cared passionately about their environmental and social responsibility values: when I asked what they were proudest of, they said “the year we sent the most containers in the company's history of revived IT equipment to Africa for free”.
The company’s Positioning strategy and branding reflected this perfectly. But during 2009 orders were thinning and they were heading for trouble. During a workshop I asked them to articulate as succinctly as possible why their customers chose their company over their competitors.
It turned out that their Positioning strategy, which had served them brilliantly during good times, focused on their environmental and social responsibility values, whereas the main reason their customers chose them was they received more money from them for their unwanted IT equipment than from their competitors. In other words, the cold hard reality was that their company values were a 'nice to have' not a 'must have' - from their customers' perspective.
During the workshop they came up with a new Positioning strategy that focussed on the 'must have' part of their offer. This was a painful process for them, as the founders had started the business from a purpose-led point of view, with the commercial side supporting it (which may sound odd to some people). But they realised they had to adapt to the new environment or, worst case, lose their business.
From that point, it was a relatively short journey to creating a new brand that articulated their new Positioning strategy. When I say a new brand, I’m not referring to new corporate colours or a new logo. They actually changed the trading name of the company to one that “did what it said on the tin”.
In these situations, I always advise clients to avoid the temptation to 'badge then build'. A congruent re-positioning strategy is the exact opposite - 'build then badge' - i.e. implement the hard yards of changing operationally - however long that takes - before 'badging', otherwise they'll fool no-one. If you're interested in learning more about this topic, here's a terrific article by ex-Netflix marketing guru Barry W. Enderwick with real-world examples.
In this case there was no need to change their operations or processes. They changed their marketing messages across all channels, and they commissioned training for their sales team to focus on the commercial benefits of choosing their company, in parallel with the rebranding exercise.
In a matter of months, my client's revenues started to climb. Their sharp, straight to-the-point message landed with their target market in a language they could relate to. In other words they focussed on their customers' agenda rather than their own.
At the end of the project, I wondered whether, when the GFC ended, they’d revert to their previous Positioning and associated branding.
So, my question to you is: looking from the outside in, does your company’s Positioning strategy suit your agenda or your customers’ agenda? If the former, why?
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