Adapting business strategies to challenging times
Posted 4 weeks ago in design chat
The last few days I’ve had an eerie sense of déja-vu and at first I couldn’t think why. Then, I had a look back and was reminded that exactly a year ago we were amidst the grim days of Theresa May’s home-made Brexit crisis. I remember writing about it at the time and my response to the frustrating, sometimes pointless cancellation of project work. Perhaps overwhelming wall-to-wall coverage of what was an important matter was worthwhile, but equally it was an issue that was rather out of our hands as citizens. A year later we find ourselves in another media maelstrom, albeit one which is, quite literally in our hands (keep washing them, folks!). I’ve heard from clients this week and, unlike last year, many feel addressing the risks of the coronavirus situation is a business logistics issue rather than a business crisis one. When it comes to very serious situations, my opinion is that as a first recourse, calmer heads should prevail. But ultimately, if circumstances change and a pivot is necessary, it’s as well be brave, act wisely and adapt your business strategies to the times.
Follow through on best-laid plans
In my role, I’m often privy to long-term marketing strategies. I always find these fascinating as, given every business is focused on their particular take on a sector, so their strategies vary. There’s always something to learn from an clever way of dovetailing different approaches to building sales. The key is to get a result that will really suit that business and their client base, hence two plans rarely being the same.
Once our work is commissioned, we get to work, complete the project and so time passes. By the time the launch approaches, most parties involved are so used to seeing the ‘new look’ we’ve created that it can appear (to the marketing team at least) as familiar as the design it’s replacing. Then, midway through the execution or launch phase business situations can dramatically change. A sense of being ‘seen to act’ becomes vital sometimes, merely to avoid accusations of inertia.
My suggestion would always be to pause calmly and assess. Ahead lies a launch of sometimes months of work that is itself a golden opportunity. Usually the investment in these projects has been made, so unless there’s some sort of obvious conflict between, say, the design and the crisis, cancellation tends to only result in waste, rather than the desired saving. What to do next? I say: proceed.
It’s worth completing half-finished projects, seeing through sensible strategies and using the shiny new tools at your disposal. In terms of our ‘adapting business strategies’ mantra, generally clients and team members enjoy a rebrand. They tend to go deeper than just a new lick of paint, particularly when dated business systems are upgraded. The most important benefit – clients old and new will be intrigued by the new look. Even if disruption looms from forces beyond your control, this is a moment to tell everyone all about your business moving forward, deflect negativity and embrace a good news story.
Refocus on strengths that matter
In the course of running a business for fifteen years, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is never to be complacent. Every time you get a little too comfortable, circumstances will change from the corner you least expected. Sometimes that’s a good thing: perhaps a major client win or an expansion of your remit. But equally this can be a sentinel of far more troublesome scenarios. Economic paralysis or pandemic viruses are somewhat extreme examples, but more familiar situations are when a reliable client moves on, project work is cancelled or a longtime moneymaker stops being viable.
The best example I can think of that we experienced is the end of e-newsletters. At one point in 2016, I thought our work was more focussed on that than anything else. Central to any client brand brief, and using services such as Mailchimp, we would create custom designs and manage their content/sending week in, week out. If not lucrative in a big way, it was certainly a reliable source of income. Then, the European data privacy legislation GDPR kicked in – and kicked out our tidy line in e-newsletters overnight.
The ‘adapting business strategies’ moment for me was to see our newsletter cottage industry as a liability rather than core service. I questioned this sort of work for the first time. Were, in fact, all these time-consuming little micro projects actually profitable? By working on so many small things, were we missing large-scale opportunities which would have been more interesting creatively? Was this a blessing in disguise?
My reaction was to promote anew services that work, whatever the weather. Perhaps our work in brand, icon and logo design? Going back to longtime clients and offering a holistic, creative vision for the way they present their business in the future? It was a moment to focus on operational resilience: thinking big, not tinkering with the edges.
The pivot: when it’s time to adapt or die
In the past week I’ve had conversations with clients who face very serious business issues as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. One is a global company with a significant presence in the Far East that has had to think on its feet within days to respond to slowdown and delay. Another is an event company facing overnight widespread cancellations as ‘mass gatherings’ become temporarily unfashionable. In both cases I’ve been inspired by their responses to these challenging situations.
How are they planning to adapt business strategies? It seems unfair to divulge their specific plans, but the broad threads we discussed were:
- how do we rethink existing projects such as now-postponed international conference speeches and use the presentation decks to discuss our perspectives using social media or online publications?
- can suddenly-idle staff complete long-delayed internal projects that will stand us in good stead once the crisis has passed?
- what assets, personal as well as in terms of real estate, do we have that are unused or can be reimagined?
- can the ‘good credit’ built up over many years with partners and suppliers be leveraged to ease the burden on both parties by having a ‘delay not cancellation’ conversation?
- a focus on streamlining workflow processes allowing better flexibility to work from home or other hubs, with the side-benefit of improving productivity and reducing wasted time on commutes, which might particularly benefit parents
- checking ‘do we really need that meeting?’ – saving time and considering alternatives like videoconference as a standard rather than an option
Fascinatingly, it seemed to me that both business leaders I spoke to had a common purpose: how can we continue doing what we excel at, retain our client base, but operate in a related but different way? For me, it’s a classic pivot – and nothing short of a ruthless re-imagination of what they do in changing times.