Three Rules for Thriving in 2009

As this fiercely challenging year begins, the tendency is to think in terms of a temporary change in tactics. But marketers should be thinking much bigger than this. What we need is a profound, strategic shift in our whole approach, using what we have in order to build stronger relationships with consumers.

Over the next 2-3 years, money and confidence won’t be the only commodities that consumers will find in short supply. They’ll also be short of time and attention. A recent study by OMD and Yahoo! found that the average “global family” man or woman is accomplishing 56 hours of activities in a 24-hour day, in large part because they were doing many of those activities simultaneously.

The challenge facing us is not just one of consumers being more value-conscious. Nor is it simply our own reduced budgets and resources. It’s how we gain the attention and interest of—and a renewed relationship with—a consumer who has less time and inclination to listen to people they do not have strong and valued relationships with.

Faced with situations like this, analysts tend to look at how brands have succeeded during previous recessions. But I would suggest a different model: Let’s instead look at recent examples of brands that have built strong relationships with time-starved consumers in busy marketplaces, and done so on very limited budgets. We stand to learn much from the ways they’ve succeeded. Here are a few of those ways:

1. Become startlingly useful. Google has become not only the global leader in search, but one of the world’s most favorite brands. And yet, it’s done it without any active marketing of itself. How? By being startlingly useful.

I search for the “meaning of life” and Google gives me 20 million possible answers in 0.08 seconds. I want to see what my neighbor’s gardens look like, punch in Google Earth and there they all are. This is what makes Google loved without the help of any marketing (over and above, of course, having an exceptional product. And that product being free doesn’t hurt, either).

Not all of us can offer startling usefulness in everything we do, but we can look for places to create it. Those challengers who do are rewarded with word-of-mouth and affection disproportionate to the brands’ actual size. Virgin Mobile in Australia has offered its users a variety of startlingly useful services that prove the company understands the real lives of its customers: rescue services that help you get out of a bad date, for example, or that stop you calling up your ex when you’re, er, over-refreshed. Without any paid-for communication, Virgin Mobile’s services became the talk of every bar and party.

2. Find a source of conflict. The one thing most of us remember from English classes is that what makes any story compelling is conflict. I don’t mean that literally—in the sense of person-versus-person—but rather in terms of protagonist needing to overcome an obstacle in order to succeed. Now, if we look at challengers with limited resources who still manage to break through, we see they’re often creating compelling stories by finding something else in popular culture to rub up against. They recognize, in other words, that having a clear sense of themselves is only half of what they need to capture our imaginations.

There are said to be seven kinds of conflict in stories, and we can see challengers leaning into each of these to create a drama that draws us in. So: Dove campaigns against what it sees as the pernicious “religion” propagated by the beauty industry. Method uses pop-up stores to mobilize its community against a monster called Toxicity.

We tend to think of the classic challenger as the little guy versus the big guy. But in fact, it’s far more often the hero versus the monster. Such a conflict not only makes the hero’s role compelling, but also mobilizes his community. And of course the opportunity and ability in a socio-digital world for a challenger to mobilize that community is greater than ever before.

3. Fundamentally rethink your media. Packaging of all kinds, delivery vehicles of all kinds and POP presentation of all kinds—these are all media (let’s call them “house media”). They are media that are also the most effective you can ever “buy” because every single piece of that media is reaching your desired target audience. If you characterize them as house media, they need as much creativity, refreshment and senior attention as any other kind of media we have more traditionally put on a conventional plan. Hence, as we watch our paid-for communications budgets get pared down, let’s look at putting our house media on the media plan. Then, we can view them as the genuine opportunity they represent.

This is not a time for temporary tactical offsetting. Be startlingly useful. Find a source of conflict. Radically rethink what you are and are not using properly as media.  Who knows? 2009 may just make stronger challengers of us all.

Adam Morgan is a partner at eatbigfish in London.