What's it like growing a company amidst this gloomy recession in Michigan? I've been asked this more times in the past two years than I can count. My response is simply that our firm would cease to exist if we waited for the perfect time to grow. There's only the present and the unique set of circumstances that it brings. It's really just a matter of perspective.
The present time is the perfect time.
Nothing remains constant. I believe you're either moving forward or backward at any given moment. By looking through this lens, I view challenges as an opportunity that can be leveraged. Obviously, Michigan is in a period of uncertainty, yet all of us who call this state our home also have an incredible opportunity. We have a chance to innovate and create new paths that never would have been seriously considered in the past. There's a shift in perspective pushing all of us to look at things differently. That's why I believe the current recession has a silver lining and why I also believe the present is always the perfect time. Present circumstances (whatever they may be) simply provide a set of parameters to help shape a strategy to move forward.
One could look at the current recession from two perspectives. The first perspective is that critical circumstances can serve companies well to inspire, innovate, and reinvent, ultimately creating better and stronger organizations in the process. Another perspective is that lean times scare organizations into circling the wagons and going into an extremely conservative and defensive mode. I believe this latter position is ultimately a losing strategy. The economy will improve. Companies that have managed to survive by adopting a defensive mode fail to offer value in a new evolving landscape where old practices have become largely irrelevant.
Events today are helping us think of new ways to be effective tomorrow. Companies that primarily focus on defense with disregard to offense will find themselves trailing competitors that were willing to act boldly and position themselves for ever changing and evolving markets.
Playing defense will be replaced with playing catch up. Not a good cycle to be caught in. I believe organizations can leverage lean times to break out of this cycle if they currently find themselves in it. We did.
Attracting the best people.
There's an endless supply of talent in our field. So, great talent is expected when someone interviews at the firm. We look beyond talent, we want to know the person and understand what motivates them. Do they truly buy into the mission for our clients and the firm? We look for people who are aligned with our approach to think differently, collaborate, explore new ideas, and be supportive of everyone's success. It's a win, win, win. For our clients, our associates and our firm.
Our agency is nothing but a building with four walls without the people and mission that is distinctively Daggerfin. Our vision, culture, and our own brand promise acts as a lighthouse guiding our team and keeping us excited about the future everyday. It pushes us to constantly evolve, improve and create opportunity. Everyone at the firm understands that being nimble, embracing change and continually finding better ways to do something is what propels us forward. The firm has a genuine entrepreneurial approach.
Our culture has evolved from years of trial and error. We value our culture and we're constantly working to nurture it. I believe this approach is instrumental for the manifestation of any company's vision, and it keeps people motivated during difficult times.
Locally owned, independent office suppliers have a big challenge ahead of them. To survive, they must compete against global retail giants like Staples, OfficeMax, Office Depot and Quill. As a collective whole, independent suppliers and dealers have traditionally accounted for a majority of the office supplies bought and sold in the United States. However, that share is rapidly shrinking. These small businesses have never had the resources to challenge and counter the enormous marketing operations behind big box chains. And on the local level, it’s becoming more and more difficult for small business owners to compete in the backyard communities they have served for years.
However, a group of independent, Michigan-based, small businesses, under the guidance of Daggerfin, have united in a shared cause to co-op their marketing resources and develop a single brand marketing and lead generation platform. This unique collaboration seeks to create a true B2B challenger brand to the big box suppliers of office supplies.
On the surface, the task appears insurmountable - big box stores offer the same products local suppliers offer, have robust online ordering environments and offer sophisticated reward programs. How can small, locally owned office suppliers effectively compete with global giants? The first step was to find a way to truly stand out from the big box chains. We had to identify a relevant and compelling way for these local office suppliers to stand apart and thrive in the competitive landscape.
Our research uncovered the absence of any emotional connection to the big box suppliers - no true brand loyalty. The core targets all participated in a pattern of switching suppliers when enticed with coupons, discounts, and rewards and/or when prices started to creep upwards. The research also shed new light on the need for a real "human" challenger in the competitive space: a real people brand in a faceless category – a brand that could challenge the joyless impersonality of the market leaders and the category as a whole.
Hence, Little Guys Supplies was born - a challenger brand fired up with a view (buy local) about the world it has to share – and looking to put the category right. Think Southwest Airlines, Sam Adams, and Ben & Jerry's (the early days). The Little Guys brand offers a motive, stance, and point-of-view that fosters a sense of belonging, provides a platform for rallying, and rewards participation. The simple, direct, and symbolic name signals 'supporting the little guy, the underdog'.
Changing the way the game is played
The second barrier: how to market the new challenger brand to local office managers and business owners with a fraction of the budgets, tools, and resources the big boxes have? Our answer was to develop a highly integrated marketing plan that could leverage select social media channels such as The Local Voice blog, Twitter, and YouTube.
The pilot program, anchored with outdoor and radio advertising, is launching in the Metro Detroit area this month. It includes a new website portal that directs visitors to the nearest "Little Guy" in their neighborhood based on zip code proximity.
Instead of trying to compete with no real voice, independent locally owned office suppliers are building their own brand and offering a real alternative to the big boxes.
If thinking outside the box is critical for survival in poor economic times, how do you get outside the box in the first place? I like to leverage creativity. Creativity is manifested in many different forms: through ideas, concepts, processes, language, visuals, communication, etc. — just about any task or situation you can think of, creativity can be applied to it. Multiple solutions await any given challenge. The key is fostering an environment and mindset that continually stretches your organizations approach to finding "out of the box" or "creative" solutions.
When we apply creativity to help a client address their challenge, the first step is to think and act like our client. Viewing the world through their eyes is a refreshing exercise. Experiencing situations from their perspective creates a springboard from which solutions can germinate. Having critical insight from our client's point of view helps us better understand their pains and the immediacy of a situation. Therefore, we can more effectively act as an extension of their team.
Second, we can now fully take advantage of contrast (looking at the problem objectively from multiple outside perspectives). These can include stakeholders, influencers, partners, and customers. Now that we understand the situation from all angles and have empathy for user experiences, it's time to share insights within a team environment. Every detail.
Creating an environment to share ideas.
Creating a sharing environment takes time, practice, and commitment from everyone. Sharing and collaboration is paramount to creating successful creative solutions. It sets the stage for gathering different perspectives while triggering a chain of thoughts that lead to bigger, better, and unexpected ideas. The progression of great ideas does not happen in a vacuum or by one individual.
Brainstorming is one of my favorite activities to foster this process. It's where great ideas are born or expanded. Following are a few simple rules we apply to maximize our brainstorming sessions.
• Create a comfortable environment. If it is indoors, I like to select a location with windows so everyone can see out. This helps eliminate the feeling of being "boxed in."
• Keep it open and free flowing. No suggestion is off limits. A good idea can come from anyone, anywhere. Participation by everyone is key. Make sure everyone feels comfortable with expression. Laugh, lighten up, have fun. Sometimes a good joke will trigger a great idea.
• Movement is critical. Have enough room to walk around, get up off your seat, wave your arms and stretch if you need to. Good ideas are often filled with excitement and passion. Embrace it!
• Document everything. Write your ideas down, take photos or capture the event on video. It's a good exercise for everyone to see them after the session as well as hear them live.
Leverage your creativity.
While it's important to foster a creative environment for ideation purposes, leveraging the creative process is just as important:
• Filter your ideas from your brainstorming session. Remember the insights gleaned from the multiple perspectives exercise?
• Present solutions that can be implemented - solutions that directly address the mission-critical challenges.
• Present your ideas from your client's perspective, through the lens of their world. Presenting from this perspective will ensure buy-in and a greater chance of successful implementation.
Once you and your team get comfortable with the brainstorming process, invite your clients to join you the next time.
I love challenger brands. The underdog. The organization with limited resources.
They have something the top dog once had but may no longer be in touch with: passion, desire and that gut feeling that they're about to do and be a part of something bigger and better (even if currently nobody can see that but themselves). They have a vision and so does their leadership team. I'll take a challenger brand with a vision and a burning desire to make a dent in their market any day over a conservative, "me too" brand with double the marketing budget. Why? Because it's from this challenger perspective that real ideas are born and growth happens.
Thinking outside the box is critical for survival in poor economic times and it's within this "challenger mindset" that organizations have the opportunity to separate themselves from the pack.
Stand for something. Be disruptive.
My agency's main objective is to help our clients find their voice and differentiate them in a crowded marketplace full of clones offering the same thing for the same price. The best way to gain attention is to be different. If you're not different, you blend in. If you blend in, you can't grow your business. Many once-successful organizations lose market share and fanfare by becoming stale and irrelevant.
The same principles apply to your own brand, be it yourself, your business, service or product. Challengers can grow when they discover what makes them different and then embrace that difference. Own that difference and use it to disrupt your playing field.
Change the conversation.
For a challenger brand to compete with competitors several times its own size, it is futile to take a "me too" approach. So if you can't outspend them in marketing, how can you be heard? You must change the conversation you're having with your audience. Redefine how you approach your audience. Say something that is different, honest and compelling. Do not try to mirror your competitors, stand proudly in contrast to them.
It's far easier to change the conversation you're having with your audience if your brand is clearly defined. Specialization is far more attractive than generalization. Specialization allows you to find your voice, stand out and charge a premium. Generalization puts you in the same pool with everyone else and eventually your offering becomes a commodity. You can't be all things to all people and why would you want to be?
Tell a good story.
Minds start to wander and eyes glaze over when people are presented with yet another case study. On the other hand, people love to hear a good story. If you're in a service based business, case studies may be important to validate your expertise. Wrap your case study in a story that is compelling and relevant to your audience. Find a way to tell your story in a way that directly relates to your potential client’s "mission critical" needs. You'll hold their attention and you'll be sharing ideas with them instead of talking at them. A story is easier to remember and much easier to retell. It's more likely that your organization's story may be retold to someone else and generate a referral.