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Innovate Your Way Out of the Storm

Posted on  20 July 10  by 

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Ah, the dog days of summer. The inevitable 90-degree day followed by the unpredictable afternoon thunderstorm and flash flood warning. If you’re lucky, the storm hits at 2pm before the commute; on the one day you absolutely must get home, I guarantee the storm hits at rush hour. The beauty and agony of summer: the uncertainty of late afternoon.

And that is exactly where our manufacturing members find today’s economy – a late summer afternoon, with limited predictive ability as to coming market conditions. They’ve seen the sun peek through the clouds (11 straight months of sector expansion per ISM’s Report on Business) but with markedly slower growth in June’s new orders, that grey cloud seeps back into the picture. With a consumer-driven economy, manufacturers can’t be too pleased that June housing starts also dropped 5.0%, while consumer confidence hit a low not seen since August 2009.

I’ve harped on uncertainty in markets since the genesis of Wide Angle (see here and here, shameless promotion, I know), yet it continues to dominate the mind of forward-thinking B2B marketers, manufacturers in particular. Manufacturing to a high degree is based on certainty and predictability – large capital requirements force long-term assumptions that must hold true for profitability to result. Senior marketers’ assumptions as to projected customer inventory levels, market size, and overarching GDP growth rates can make or break a company.

But with uncertainty comes opportunity for those manufacturing marketers savvy enough to push forward. Just because the market halts for the occasional thunderstorm doesn’t mean the marketing discipline required to produce growth stops as well. Manufacturing has never been the sexiest of marketing industries (for better or worse), but it does provide opportunities for incredible experimentation to assist in leapfrogging the competition:

1. Utilize social media to develop deeper individual customer relationships – Too often, manufacturers internalize the business-to-business aspect of industrial marketing. Social media offers the chance to build individual advocates on a 1-to-1 basis, rallying support across the customer organization. At the core of every B2B sale is a collective group of B2C customers, all with different motivations; social media can quickly shine a light on how to use those differences to your advantage in the sale.

2. Experiment with Discovery-Driven Planning – Designed to drive certainty from uncertainty, this planning methodology enables constant assumption testing, moving forward with projects only as data collection turns known unknowns into facts. Our sister program, the Corporate Strategy Board, has published some great research from Air Products utilizing this method.

3. Refine your Insight Marketing strategy – Markets may be uncertain, but members still control their ability to teach customers new insights that link explicitly to their differentiators. Learn more about how to embed this strategy in your organization.

Perhaps one day in the not too distant future the skies will fully clear. But until then, the cloud of uncertainty will reign supreme. And I promise, no more bad metaphors in subsequent posts.

(photo courtesy of mikebaird)

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