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Stewardship – The path of opportunity

November 21, 2008

This oped piece was published in the October 2008 issue of Direct Marketing (www.dmn.ca)

Stewardship: The path of opportunity – by Miro Slodki

Every day these last few weeks, we wake up hoping to learn that we have finally touched the bottom of this expanding global financial malaise so as to begin rebuilding.

You can actually feel it, the panic and mistrust. And if you know what to look for, you can literally see those around you cycling through what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross named the Five Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as yesterday’s economic order comes to a jarring halt – the rapid turn of fortune that has caught so many in the cross-hairs of record level debt. These conditions signify a long climb. As consumers, we will not be spending our way to prosperity any time soon. It also means that as marketers, we will need to reassess our individual brand communities as many consumers will be reevaluating their options in light of their new economic circumstances.

If you Google “how to market in a recession,” you’ll find over 10,000 listings outlining the conventional wisdom of tactical price and value injecting program options one should consider for deployment. But after going through these suggestions I couldn’t help remembering John Maynard Keynes’ observation: “Worldly wisdom teaches us it’s better for one’s reputation to fail conventionally rather than succeed unconventionally” and wonder if we can afford to follow his worldly wisdom.

Stewardship: an opportunity

Many of us are now familiar with the term, moral hazard. It’s used to describe situations where possibly inappropriate actions may be taken by those who do not bear the full weight of responsibility. By this definition as the intermediaries between stakeholders, virtually all management is strewn with moral hazard. It is only stewardship that keeps us safe from moral hazard and consequently only stewardship from brand leaders will get us out of this current situation.

Clearly these are not conventional times and this is will not be a “typical” recession. To be sure conventional responses will generate conventional business results and one can always blame the economy on the shortfall. But for those who believe as I do that a brand is a promise kept and that the enterprise’s value is a reflection of the value it creates for its customers-partners, there is a different path to travel. It’s the path that others have forged throughout human history, at times when existing leadership was not forthcoming and new stewards were required to provide direction, hope and courage.

The time is past when we would admire and reward those who outmaneuvered their competition by zigging when the rest zagged. We have powerful direct marketing and social media channels that didn’t exist just a few years ago. How we choose to move forward is going to be a reflection of the things we value and those value judgments will be remembered by all. To revert to using the old playbook on new terrain is zigging. To embrace and engage one’s community is stewardship.

We need corporate stewardship from those that seek to earn the right of having an authentic “share of life” relationship with their partners, not simply consumers. The word consumer is a throwback to a narrowly defined economic exchange. I prefer to think of it a continuum of buyers, consumers and partners. Partners want honesty and sincerity, not just 10 cents off the sticker price. Partners want to know that their economic value is being used for the good of the community with the same focus as meeting the quarterly profit obligations.

No doubt, there will be plenty of opportunities to craft this “challenge” into ongoing brand relevant initiatives, but right here and right now partners want to know that they will not be unnecessarily sacrificed at the altar of profit. That the good times and bad will be shared equitably. If businesses cut off their hand to maximize short-term profit without consideration of the community they derive their economic value from, then they will have cut off their hand and prolonged the recovery for everyone – nothing more.

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