Making Money in Chaotic Times

Harvard Business Review

June 2, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

To answer your question, I decided to turn to Philip Kotler, the well-known marketing guru at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.
Phillip has just recently published a book with John Caslione called Chaotics: The Business of Managing and Marketing in the Age of Turbulence. Here’s his advice:PK: Having two playbooks, one for good times and one for bad times, is a good start but far from sufficient. For example, at the start of a downturn, companies tend to cut their hiring, advertising, and new product development. But to do this mechanically without addressing the causes of the downturn, the actions of their competitors, and the perceived length and depth of the crisis doesn’t make sense. I am against robot responses.A company can make money in bad times. Some companies will be favored because they are known to offer good value for a low price, such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. Their sales will increase and although their profits might be lower than in good times, they will do fairly well.Other companies have a number of options:

• Lower your prices to create a better ratio of value to price. You can lower your list prices or initiate more sale promotions (discounts, two for the price of one, etc.)

• Introduce a lower-cost version of your offering where you have removed some features or benefits. It will probably cannibalize your higher priced offer, but it is better to cannibalize yourself than to have competitors do this to you.

• Add some additional benefits to your standard offer. Offer free shipment, extend your guarantee, or create a more generous return policy. In the latter case, Hyundai recently offered to take back a purchased car if the buyer loses his or her job. GM and Ford have offered to make the laid-off car-buyer’s payments for them.

In taking any of these steps, make sure that your company doesn’t dent the favorable aspects that have drawn customers to prefer and respect it. For example, a company that is admired for its level of service should never cut its service quality and risk losing this point of differentiation and preference. The key is to understand your customers’ new problems and to consider how you can help them solve or resolve these problems. You have to coach your customer about possible solutions.

These are some ways to respond to the current downturn. But what about anticipating the next one? Every company is vulnerable not only to an economic downturn but to other disruptions that may come from technological change or from new global competitors. So the question becomes: how can companies do a better job of anticipating disruption? Companies generally do a poor job of monitoring the environment for clues to these threats. They lack an early warning system that might pick up weak signals of change. An early warning system would greatly reduce the level of surprise and chaos felt by a company that was too naïve.

The company then has to go further and imagine additional possibilities even before there is a sign that they might be taking place. For example, General Motors might ask: “What if China finds a way to make a battery that can hold a charge for 200 miles instead of the 90 miles that we are hoping to get out of our new battery?” A company must imagine new surprises.

Business is now exposed to continuous turbulence, not occasional turbulence. We aren’t going back to normal times. The “new normality” is one of turbulence coming from two big forces, namely technological advances and globalization. All this spells higher risk and vulnerability.

There is a little rainbow in all of this. Change presents opportunity as well as vulnerability. The companies that succeed are those who look more at the opportunity side than the vulnerability side. If your company is having trouble, so are your competitors. If you are better funded, you can initiate lower prices or better benefits that they can’t match. You can end up buying some of your competitors or putting them out of business.

Your customers, suppliers, and distributors are all suffering. Think about how to help them. Think about developing a new business model, a new product or service, a lower cost distribution channel, a lower cost supply chain. Rather than just relying on a rulebook, be more robust, resilient, and responsive to changing conditions.

MG: Thank you for Philip! Readers, for more on responding to the challenges of increased turbulence, please go to Please send in your comments about how your company is making money in today’s economy.