Earlier this year I spoke at an Australian conference about my views on the future of our industry. I entitled my talk ‘The Crash and the Klondyke Kid’. I’m not an economist or a smart arse, but to me it wasn’t rocket science that even before we saw the downturn begin in April, recession was well on its way. Exactly a year ago, I said to my Elmwood colleagues that not only were we about to experience a recession, but in my view, it would be the worst economic climate since the 1930s.
However, the facts are that the Great Depression wasn’t all gloom and doom. For sheer creative thinking, the 1930s was one of the most innovative decades in modern history. The Klondyke Kid, aka Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, was born in 1928 at the tipping point of the crash that sparked the Great Depression. The 1930s were, quite literally, the best thing since sliced bread, which also arrived along with the first computer, jet engine, helicopter, FM radio and humble Scotch Tape. Products that have played their role in changing the way we live and multimillion-pound industries borne out of one idea.
So as we enter 2009 there is no doubt that many businesses will fail. But having studied the Great Depression and lived through three recessions I actually believe that the next few years can be a period of significant opportunity for those aligned to the new world we live in.
So what does this mean for those of us working in design?
Clients will either disappear or, at best, reduce budgets as consumer spending slows to a trickle. And while this will be painful for some, so too will there be winners. Those that run on common sense and keep things simple. So here are my three fundamental truths for keeping it simple.
First, businesses don’t go broke because they aren’t making profits; they go broke because they run out of cash. In the last downturn Elmwood lost money for eight consecutive month, but we still made a profit that year (not much, but nevertheless). At no point did we contemplate redundancies as we knew that our strategy was sound and we had cash to weather the storm.
So what was the essence of our strategy? Quite simply – and this is my second truth – we looked after our existing clients. In a storm you need friends around you and you need to help your friends. Work harder, proffer ideas for free and make sure fees are as low as possible. You’re not the only ones having a tough time and by recognising that, your empathy will repay itself with loyalty.
Winners need to be playing with other winners, but how do you spot them in a downturn? As designers we’re supposed to craft solutions based on consumer insight, so use these insights to craft your own strategy. Target clients who consumers turn to when money is tight – and they’re not always the obvious choice.
Consumer insight is simple truth number three. If you’ve managed cash and are lucky enough to be in the winners’ enclosure, you need to stay there by helping to think your client to market share rather than spending their way, or, in other words, to innovate.
Innovation will manifest itself most strongly where design adds value to a brand. Giving consumers a unique experience and retaining a point of difference allows brands to gain customers even when belts are tightened. Brands that provide an antidote to the defining theme of the moment – anxiety. Anxiety from terrorism, property prices and job instability, to name a few, affect us all, but it’s here brands can find their point of difference and succeed.
Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the desire to find security in a hostile world is the growing demand for retro – brands that take us back to our childhood or a recent history that we feel is more secure.
But non-retro brands can equally effectively tap into this desire. For example – The Geek Squad, an IT support helpline company positioned as an emergency service, complete with squad cars, helping out those in ‘IT distress’. A serious business not taken too seriously. One that gives you reason to smile even in these difficult times.
I’m not suggesting that brands adopt risky or avant-garde strategies, but we should be mindful that consumers are looking for an antidote to their stress. Successful brands are those that help us slow down, take a step back, fill us with a sense of well-being and bring back a sense of togetherness. Those that are passionate about what they do, but have their feet rooted in the real world.
So just like the 1930s, innovation will again create our future. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it doesn’t have to be difficult. It should be simple, true, empathetic and creative. No wonder Mickey Mouse was so successful, despite the crash! Recession may, after all, be the mother of all invention.
Jonathan Sands is chairman of Elmwood
Three ways to ride out the storm
• Manage your cash – businesses don’t go broke because they’re not making profits, they go broke because they run out of cash
• Back the winners – target clients that consumers turn to when money it tight • Innovate – think your way to increased market share