Lessons learned from companies that outpaced their competitors during the last four recessions.
By Robert Buday and Alan Alper
Economic signals are pointing to a recession – if not by the end of this year, then 2023. Let’s assume they’re right. If so, thought leadership professionals who have sweated through previous economic downturns will know the drill: Do more with less, sometimes much less. Or do it somewhere else – and get out, unscathed. In that case, clearly, your organization’s leaders don’t prioritize thought leadership, so why bother.
With our combined 50 years of experience in thought leadership, we are very familiar with these reactions. But we find them appalling for two simple reasons: They’re myopic and counterproductive.
In the last four recessions – of 1990-91, 2001, 2008-09 and 2020 – one or both of us observed, worked with, or worked at companies that, rather than pulling back on their thought leadership efforts, brought novel, thought-leading concepts to market. Their ideas were irresistible to customers, who were struggling in those downturns. They clung to them like a tired swimmer to a lifeline.
These approaches not only kept the firms that produced the ideas afloat. They allowed them to thrive in difficult times. To fend off the recessionary squeeze, B2B firms can learn much from their examples. For us, four operating principles stood out.
Shining through the Fog of the Great Recession of 2008-09
When Alan joined Cognizant in January 2007, revenue of the global IT services firm had been growing more than 50% a year. The company was emerging from relative obscurity to become a major challenger to the Big Three of the India-centered IT services space: Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys, and Wipro. (A spinoff of Dun & Bradstreet, Cognizant is headquartered in Teaneck, NJ, but most of its employees are in India.)
When the recession of 2008-09 hit, Cognizant leadership worried that growth would pause. But rather than cut budgets and play defense, company leaders doubled down on investments in people and new digital services. They also invested in marketing their newly developed expertise through white papers, conference presentations and other thought leadership channels.
Doing so signaled to the marketplace that Cognizant was ratcheting up its expertise to help clients navigate the turbulent times – to continue “shining through the fog,” as the company said at the time. In contrast, several competitors reined in such investments, seeing them as luxuries that could be put on ice.
These moves paid off. Between 2010 and 2014, Cognizant more than doubled its revenue (from $4.6 billion to $10.2 billion) and operating income (from $861 million to $1.9 billion). So successful was Cognizant’s strategy that it fueled even greater investments in thought leadership. One of these was the 2010 launch of a think tank on the future workplace implications of digital technology. Its research guided Cognizant leadership on which new services to build over the decade. Cognizant would soon surpass Wipro and, eventually, Infosys in revenue through deep client relationships, extensive expertise in key industries, and thought leadership.
Reengineering Away the Recession of 1990-91
The sharp economic downturn at the beginning of this decade threw many consulting firms into a tailspin. Bob had been working since 1987 at a management consulting firm (CSC Index) based in Cambridge, MA. But you wouldn’t have known there was a recession in the early ‘90s if you walked its ebullient halls in Kendall Square or viewed its rising headcount, burgeoning client roster or growing financials.
Here’s why the organization was outperforming in an economic downturn. U.S. and European companies were looking to shed costs without cutting into organizational bone. They were also trying to significantly accelerate and improve the quality of key business processes such as product development, order fulfillment, and marketing and selling. One of CSC Index’s thought leadership research engines (a business called PRISM that was co-owned with Michael Hammer, the father of business reengineering, and which had more than 100 sponsors at its peak) had been conducting best-practice case study research since 1988.
From 10 years of PRISM studies, a key insight had emerged on what companies with the greatest returns on their information technology investments were doing differently. (Clue: They were redesigning how work was accomplished across functional silos.) That insight found its way into a now-classic Harvard Business Review article in 1990 and the publication of a bestselling book (Reengineering the Corporation, by Hammer and then-Index CEO James Champy). Hammer, Champy and numerous Index consultants gave speeches about reengineering at their numerous events, which consistently drew large numbers of senior executives. And Index’s revenue (about $40 million in 1987) rose dramatically through the recession of 1990-91, reaching $200 million by 1995.
Four Thought Leadership Moves to Defy a Recession
Both of us have helped other B2B firms – management consultants, IT service providers, training and development organizations and others – use thought leadership to defy recessions. Based on our experiences, we see four operating principles that can help any B2B company turn thought leadership into a recession-busting weapon.
1: Focus Thought Leadership Topics on Life-and-Death Business Issues
In times of crisis, it’s essential to quickly shift thought leadership priorities to mirror immediate customer paint points. In a recession, your customers will likely seek the safe harbor of rapid cost reduction and revenue generation, and thought leadership programs that address these two pain points will resonate. Those that don’t will be DOA. This is about shifting your thought leadership topic strategy to focus on the here-and-now, life-and-death business issues of your clients.
Categorize your firm’s topics in a framework of “time to impact” (short vs. long term) and operational focus (cost reduction vs. revenue increase). (See Exhibit 2.) Ideas that can reduce clients’ costs in less than 12 months will get their attention. Ways to increase revenue in under a year will also garner interest, but those will be harder for your clients to control – getting their customers to buy. Above all, focus on pain points that no customer would argue with; they’re here-and-now problems, not potential problems in the future.
Here are a few examples of topics we would classify as being short-term cost-reduction or revenue gains:
- Identifying duplicative expenses (marketing, sales, service, etc.)
- Improving how to sell to current customers
- Highlighting fast-moving/promising new products or services with the potential to optimize existing processes and headcount
Now, here are a few examples of topics we view as long-term cost reduction and revenue enhancements:
- Business model innovation: Not likely to happen in a company within a year
- Scenario planning for 2030 (or even 2025!)
- Organizational structure and operating model changes that support product and service innovation
Not only does your content need to address the recessionary issues of your clients; it must also explain how to solve them, according to Professor Hermann Simon, co-founder of global pricing strategy consulting firm Simon-Kucher & Partners. Simon was CEO of the firm from its start in 1985 to 2009, when he retired. (The firm’s revenue was €105 million in 2010; by 2021, it had quadrupled to €442 million. Between 2010 and 2014, its revenue increased 64%.)
“People are very receptive to such concrete ideas. Thought leadership is received much better during a crisis than it is under normal economic conditions.” — Professor Hermann Simon
“During an economic crisis, thought leadership for me means you must suggest very concrete solutions,” Simon told us. As an example, he points to the title of a book he published during the Great Recession: Beat the Crisis: 33 Quick Solutions For Your Company. “People are very receptive to such concrete ideas. Thought leadership is received much better during a crisis than it is under normal economic conditions,” he said.
A word of caution: We don’t recommend halting all investment in long-term topics. You will need those after the next recession lifts. But we believe higher investments in short-term cost-reduction and revenue-increase topics will pay dividends more quickly.
2: Develop Content Rapidly, and Collect Customer Case Studies (Not Testimonials)
Taking six months or longer to write a white paper or conduct a research study won’t work. But producing content quickly doesn’t mean skipping the rigor or proof points these thought leadership vehicles should convey. While under severe pressure to increase revenue and cut costs, prospective clients who consume your content will be even more conservative about who they use to help on those fronts. They will place even greater emphasis on thought leadership with novel but proven solutions. And in this case, proven solutions are vastly more important than novelty.
As such, your content will need to bring irrefutable evidence of your capabilities, through the words of clients willing to go on-record about the demonstrable operational and financial improvements they’ve achieved by putting your firm’s expertise to good use.
The best way to get the required permissions needed to name client names and cite their gains is not by asking them for client testimonials, as they will often say no. Instead, ask if you can feature their experience in a way that highlights their competence rather than yours: through a best-practice case example on a topic in which your organization seeks eminence. With this approach, your company’s role in the achievement doesn’t even need to be mentioned – it will be implied to your target audience. You would be surprised how many clients say yes to being profiled in this way. After all, best-practice case examples enhance both the subject matter experts’ careers, as well as their company’s reputation.
In fact, put one of your writers on a quest to develop three client case studies. And make clear to these clients that the purpose is to illustrate their best practices and showcase their competence. You can go even further by saying you intend to mention these clients as best-practice examples in op-ed articles submitted to prestigious industry and business publications. While you can’t guarantee those publications will run your op-eds – and you must explicitly say that – some clients will be game for the opportunity.
We’ve done this with numerous clients over the years. In 2002, Bob helped Deloitte open its doors to several case study interviews by discussing the potential – not a guarantee – to be featured in a Harvard Business Review article submission. (At the time, HBR commonly rejected more than 90% of unsolicited articles, according to an editor we knew there at the time. Nonetheless, it served as a tempting prospect for these Deloitte clients.) As it turns out, that effort led to a cover article in the March 2003 print edition of HBR, “Bottom Feeding for Blockbuster Businesses,” with a Deloitte (known as Braxton at the time) byline.
Bottom line: Do not ask for client testimonials. Not only do clients tend to turn down these requests, but they come across as inauthentic.
3: Turn Salespeople into Thought Leaders
Most organizations under-utilize one of their best thought leadership allies: their own salespeople. In fact, the “last-mile problem” is one of the biggest thought leadership failings we’ve seen in companies over the last four recessions: Their research and marketing groups bring great content to market, but the salesforce doesn’t use it – often because, simply, they haven’t read it.
If they did, however, they’d see your content as one of the best ways to open doors to prospective customers or respond to prospects who ask for meetings after reading your thought leadership. Since they are the ones who spend time with prospects and clients, they are best positioned to turn a prospect who’s intrigued with your content into a purchaser of the services or products you sell.
Three moves can multiply your thought leadership impact by increasing awareness and educating your salespeople on how to best use it:
- Create a public or private (gated access) online repository to share your firm’s expertise. This should include short, high-impact point-of-view articles written by key subject matter experts inside and outside your firm, extended by client case examples that not only drill down into your firm’s solutions but also document results with measurable business outcomes. Don’t overlook the impact of highlighting external voices from outside your organization – these opinions can help affirm that the issues raised by your own SMEs are universally understood.
- Ratchet up account-based marketing (ABM). Every company thinks its problems are idiosyncratic. While that’s not always true, you can align your capabilities and offerings with a prospect’s “unique” issues by creating a custom thought leadership piece that reveals how your products and solutions address problems that similar companies have experienced. Doing so will reinforce your expertise and give you a better shot at securing their business. One unintended but positive consequence of this outreach: These assets can help demonstrate to senior leaders how thought leadership done right generates business value.
- Scale up delivery: Develop sales methodologies and training courses so your sales teams can sell effectively. Whether you embrace the “Challenger” sales training methodology or another well-known approach, the quietude of a downturn is the perfect time to give your client-facing teams the training they need to excel – regardless of market conditions. To repeat an oft-quoted euphemism, “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste!”
4: Double-Down on Your Operational Efficiency
In a recession, every business function can be asked to take a budget haircut – especially those whose contribution to the top and bottom lines are hard to measure (as thought leadership typically is). Rather than trying to defend every budget dollar, a better stance is to find short-term savings that will reinforce your “corporate citizen” credentials. Here are some examples:
- Budget realistically but with wiggle room. Account for essential production costs but leave room to give back on non-essential initiatives (i.e., do we really need that report on “IoT is Eating the World — Avoid Data Indigestion” (with apologies to Marc Andreessen). Moreover, do we really need more self-serving, say-nothing blogs, podcasts, and videos? If you haven’t drawn a hard line on these already, an impending recession may give you all the ammo you need.
- Knock on the right doors. Find internal subject experts who will share their ideas and experiences, introduce you to clients for interviews and case studies — and embrace feedback. If they say they’re too busy, get top management to lean on them and explain the importance of what you’re asking for. Then choose wisely: Avoid SMEs who want only to boost their street cred, not the firm’s, or are only interested in vanity thought leadership.
- Apply your expert market analysis to secondary research. You know your customers’ needs, wants and desires better than anyone (or at least you should). Dig deep with your SMEs to divulge and develop their insider knowledge to improve your market intelligence. These sessions can expose new thought leadership territory to explore and save time and precious budget mining for new ideas.
- Extend existing primary research with targeted surveys. Primary research done right can be expensive. If budgets tighten, use low-cost (but secure) platforms like Survey Monkey or LinkedIn to take the market’s pulse on key issues your organization prioritizes. You may not be able to acquire an empirically sound dataset, but you will be able to gauge trends and market dynamics to build on existing fact-based insights.
- Create infographics (IGs) to quickly and succinctly tell your story. Mine existing data for new insights that can be displayed with lighter text to more quickly and less expensively (since you are repurposing insights in a new visually intuitive medium) keep you thought leadership engine firing on all cylinders.
- Amp up use of social media and company-owned platforms. This includes third-party sites like Medium.com and LinkedIn, to stoke and keep conversations going. You may even want to consider cost-effective campaigns to reach your highest-value targets. While they don’t carry the credibility of getting op-eds in top-tier management or industry publications, they do bring your ideas to an audience that’s typically much larger than ones that view the average B2B website.
- Work with partners on co-innovation programs. We don’t suggest this naively. (We’ve been involved in numerous initiatives where partners worked at cross-purposes before realizing that thought leadership by a loosely formed committee is hard – unless both sides are pulling in the same direction.) You’ll need to find partners whose missions are aligned and where cost-sharing makes business sense. Navigating this slippery slope requires a mutual understanding of how to balance risks and rewards well in advance of project kick-off.
- Outsource what you can to expert partners. They may cost a bit more initially. Yet finding best-of-breed partners will save time and money over the long-term. Many of these firms live and breathe thought leadership. Partner with experts in research, analysis, argument shaping, writing, etc. — maybe even digital content marketing. But never, and we mean never, outsource your thinking to them. Your internal experts will turn a cold shoulder to it, and they are the ones who must sell and deliver it in the marketplace.
Come Out Swinging – Don’t Let Your Economic Adversary Attack You First
In a world where disinformation and misinformation are rife, B2B firms have opportunity to lead by sharing their breakthrough thinking and expertise. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer makes this clear. It found that businesses (once again) were the most trusted of the four institutions studied (the others were media, government, and NGOs). In fact, 61% of those polled said (not surprisingly) that they trusted businesses more than government institutions.
Recessions can be an excellent time for B2B firms to develop new expertise and showcase existing expertise that helps customers stay strong and win amid growing uncertainty.
Robert Buday is CEO of Buday Thought Leadership Partners and the author of “Competing on Thought Leadership: How Great B2B Companies Turn Expertise Into Revenue.” Alan Alper is COO and Principal at Buday Thought Leadership Partners.