Every business plan succeeds, and every marketer is a perfect partner in the process. Then, we all wake up to the real world and find that the best advice may be in the immortal words of Mike Tyson:
Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth.
In truth, every business plan is flawed in some way and, occasionally, something unforeseen can even obliterate your business’s well-thought-out SWOT analysis.
What then for the marketer?
A lot of business plans have been punched in the mouth over the past few years. But the list of challenges we’ve all seen—material shortages, worker shortages, inflation, event cancellations, changes in regulations—have at least given us some important insight in how to roll with the punches.
Here are three brief studies in how companies and industries dealt with a heavy blow to the head:
1. Appealing to the bigger picture
Sometimes the issue isn’t a failure of a business plan. Your business plan was developed for the world in which you operated, and it was perfect… but then the world in which you operate changed.
That’s when marketers must anchor their strategy to the essence of the company’s existence.
The fall of Blockbuster Video is a case study in every marketing school because Blockbuster flat out misunderstood its own business objective. It clung to the idea that the chain existed to rent tangible goods—VHS tapes, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs—to customers.
While Blockbuster can be forgiven for not purchasing then-money-losing Netflix for $50 million, the video store chain couldn’t survive missing out on the bigger picture that Netflix actually grasped: The video content itself was the key, regardless of how it was delivered.
Fast forward to 2020 when the closure of movie theaters leveled a more abrupt change to the video entertainment industry. Global revenue for video entertainment fell by 18 percent between 2019 and 2020, obviously due to the global COVID pandemic. But the industry avoided a greater catastrophe by embracing what up until then was a more slowly emerging trend—putting new-release digital content straight into homes. In 2020, digital entertainment jumped a whopping 31 percent to $61.8 billion.
Come 2021, the industry had a record year, even by pre-pandemic standards. Theaters were back in play, and most production houses had honed their means of marketing new releases outside the theatrical release dynamic.
Even if you haven’t formally mapped it (ddm can help with that), the fact is you’ve got a buyer’s journey to consider. When the world is disrupted, it’s still true that the starting point and ending point of your buyer’s journey remain the same—but the process itself might need to be adjusted, or even changed completely.
The pandemic also brought about huge shifts toward food delivery services, telemedicine, at-home mental health counseling, and education. Marketers need to be ready to cast aside the details of familiar processes in order to continue delivering their products or services.
2. Owning a mistake
Aside from a major scandal, seldom does a business plan fail because a mistake was that bad. But you have a choice to make when your company’s poor decision-making is the clear culprit. You can tap dance and kindly ask your customers for patience. You can divert attention to another, more reliable area of your business. Or you can steer into the curve.
An outstanding example of marketing taking a major failure and transforming it into a long-term image boost was what we’ll civilly call Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Three-Letter-Word campaign.
Pre-COVID, the franchise’s European locations had a debacle on their hands when a logistics failure left them without chicken and other key ingredients for several days, even forcing the closure of hundreds of locations.
When social media and news media demanded a response at the highest level, boy, did KFC’s marketing communications deliver.
Instead of tepidly offering make-good coupons or promoting the greatness of their biscuits and gravy, they offered a nakedly sincere, single-word response… and even left out the vowel. Playing on both their established, casual brand identity and their own company acronym, they creatively rearranged the KFC letters on one of their chicken buckets. They put the almost-expletive on full-page ads across Europe.
The humor of the response became a huge part of the story, and it positioned KFC well to communicate updates, recover, and even garner sympathy with no lasting damage to their brand.
Customers are given a reason to forgive if the offending brand is humanized. University-level research shows that customers do, indeed, want to forgive a familiar brand that lets them down on occasion. And when a customer encounters a disruption, their relationship with their “transgressor” shifts. A company owning a problem and being real about it, instead of skirting the issue, gives a customer greater motivation to forgive.
3. Through it all, empathize
It’s easy to focus on the metrics your company routinely uses to gauge success. It’s harder to grasp the customer mindset that translates into the metrics—including whether and when to adjust, expand, or change your focus.
Especially amid change and challenges, effective marketing leaders will need to empathize to truly think like a customer.
Airbnb’s rise to prominence was largely credited to the company’s obsession with benchmarking against competitors—and, most importantly, how elements of the customer experience moved those metrics.
When COVID interrupted Airbnb’s healthy growth, the company’s response made the difference between a COVID casualty and a full recovery.
CEO and founder Brian Chesky put everything on the table, laid off a quarter of the workforce, cut every peripheral cost, and sent clear directives about how customers were to be treated—with an excess of communication and sympathy for how the traveler, or would-be traveler, was being impacted.
We got back to our roots and back to what is truly special about Airbnb—the everyday people who host their homes and offer experiences. Wrote Airbnb’s leadership to their investors
Contractually, they could have clung to their “no refund” booking agreements and grabbed all the cash that was legally accessible to them to try to ride out the storm. But instead, they issued a full $1 billion in refunds and allocated $250 million to support those who listed venues through their service. They even recognized that, among a subset of customers, cravings for Airbnb experiences could be partially satisfied through a virtual experience service.
Throwing out their playbook and reallocating ten figures to follow the golden rule was the epitome of a huge risk. But even with the travel industry continuing to navigate various levels of restrictions worldwide, Airbnb’s revenues and earnings are back on an upswing. It’s hard to argue that they made the right call.
Ideally, the analogy of a boxer reeling from a brutal round isn’t the best analogy to describe your marketing environment. But even if it is… take heart. It can be done!
Need to shift your marketing strategy? Learn how having ddm in your corner can help you rebound.