Why “mountain stage” is a better marketing-planning metaphor than “hunker down”

On Tuesday, amidst my live-blogging of the Future of Business Media Conference in the New York, I took a shot at CNBC for covering the economy in the way the Weather Channel and CNN cover hurricanes: with breathless alarm and Anderson Cooper dressed in rain-gear while panting in a way that makes every puff of wind seem like proof that, yes, this could be the Category 5 we’ve all feared.

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via.

At the conference, I heard business-side and news-side people from Dow-Jones, CNBC, Fox Business News, the Economist, BusinessWeek, Forbes.com and Fortune magazine (to name a few) say something to the effect: This is a really difficult time, but this is the story of a lifetime and, well, it’s been good for our ratings (or newsstand sales).

So I guess I should not be surprised that since the business media is covering the “financial crisis” as if it is a weather event, business executives are using a term most associated with weather to describe how they are responding to the “crisis” that is leading to what our experts in the Economy Tracking Center in Miami are believing will be a Category 3, 4 or maybe even 5 recession. Or better yet, a nuclear winter:

Hunker down.

Look at a Google news search for recent uses of the term “hunker down.” This morning, you’ll see it is not only the go-to cliche for covering bad weather (the snows in the northeast) and natural disasters (the earth quake in Pakistan), but it is now the must-use term to describe anything related to how businesses and individuals are reacting to the “bad economy.”

As a business person, I understand the realities of needing to be mindful of the context and conditions you face. Certainly, if your customers are sitting on their wallets, you can’t pretend they are about to purchase your wares. Flexibility and being ever-mindful of the need to prepare for whatever situation you face is the only way to run a business. But by focusing on the hunker down metaphor — especially the “we’re afraid” aspects of the term, there is a strong possibility that the “hunker down” activities are no more than duck-and-cover exercises.

Isn’t “hunkering down” the panic reaction to a situation that a calm, rational person might discover contains some opportunity? What if you’re in a business that suddenly finds all of its competitors “re-trenching” and “pulling back” and “hiding in caves” — if you, also, are “hunkering down,” aren’t you missing a unique opportunity to gain market share?

The term hunker down means two things: One is related to preparation for some type of pressure you’re anticipating. The other relates to “hiding.”

I fear that a lot of business planners are confusing the first type of hunkering down — anticipating and preparing for an economic downturn — with the second type of hunkering down: hiding.

If you’re a company or organization that wants to elevate its awareness — and brand — in the market you serve, the worst thing you can do — in good times or bad — is “hunker down” — as in, hide. The evidence is overwhelming that companies who market wisely and aggressively while others are hunkering down are the winners during — and after — a recession. For example, according to research conducted at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business during the last recession, “firms entering a recession with a pre-established strategic emphasis on marketing; an entrepreneurial culture; and a sufficient reserve of under-utilized workers, cash, and spare production capacity are best positioned to approach recessions as opportunities to strengthen their competitive advantage.”

Rather than use the “hunker down” metaphor, the “winner” companies followed another metaphor — one from athletic competition:

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“Athletes often choose times of stress to mount attacks: strong runners and bicycle racers may increase their pace on hills or under other challenging conditions,” the authors write. “In a similar vein, proactive marketing includes both the sensing of the existence of the opportunity (a tough hill and fatigued opponents) and an aggressive response (possessing the necessary strength or nerve) to the opportunity.”

A warning, however: The research indicates that it is only when companies are prepared for recessions (like cyclists who train for hills) who benefit. Thus, Apple with its pre-existing marketing and advertising savvy and a mountain of cash, is likely to benefit during this recession, as it has in previous ones, rather than another company whose marketing is inept, even in less challenging times.

Bottomline: “Hunkering down” is not the metaphor you want as your guide when planning your marketing efforts for the coming months — especially if your marketing has been working and your competitor seems to be huffing and puffing already. Hunker down wherever you can — say, executive compensation — but use a recession to raise your visibility, not hide.

[cross-posted at Hammock.com/rexhammock]