I realize women are expected to hem and haw about their age, but I’m 50 years old and not at all bummed about it. Frankly, being of a certain age has tangible benefits. I’m tempted to plagiarize Farmers Insurance and say something about resilience and “having seen a thing or two,” but I won’t (as an aside, this Farmers COVID-19 commercial is pitch-perfect brand marketing, IMO).
Here’s what I can say. At the ripe age of 50, I’ve experienced two major economic upheavals as a bona fide adult – the dot.com crash in 2000 and the Great Recession in 2008.
As we all know, massive speculation in Internet-related companies in the 1990s sent tech stocks into the stratosphere, only to have them come hurtling back to Earth between 2000 and 2002 (ish). The impact was unparalleled: in less than one month, from March 10 to April 6, 2000 the Nasdaq shed almost a trillion dollars, and it would take 15 years before it would once again breach its all-time high. I had just ended a wonderful four-year run at Informatica when the bubble burst. My two strongest memories from that period are colleagues panicking because of AMT taxes, and the day Microstrategy restated earnings. To be honest, I celebrated when Microstrategy admitted its financial sleights of hand; their valuation had dwarfed Informatica’s, and I took it personally. Finding out they cheated made me feel eminently better.
Then in 2008, along with everyone else I started googling “credit default swaps” while trying to understand what a “housing bubble” was and what the h*ck did all these Wall Street dudes think was going to happen? All the skeletons came tumbling out of the closet when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection in September 2008, by which time the excruciating job losses across a wide swath of industries was already well under way. Not even tech would be spared.
What’s the point?
As tech marketers (myself included) give a collective side-eye to the uncertainty ahead, courtesy of COVID-19, Scott Rosenberg at Axios quite rightly points out that: “Tech has been booming for so long the industry barely remembers what a down market feels like.” I’m old enough to remember. I’m guessing a lot of ink will be spilled in the days ahead, by folks far more qualified than me, about how to market appropriately as we adjust to a new normal. Nevertheless, here’s my $.02: when it comes to making marketing decisions, pragmatism and alignment make for some pretty solid guardrails.
Now is not the time to be way out over your skis. I’m all for aspirational storytelling and casting a vision big enough to get people excited and engaged. But for the foreseeable future, pragmatism advises us to ratchet it down a few notches. Get laser-focused on selling your competitive differentiation. If, during the salad days of the last half-decade, you’ve lost sight of your competitive positioning (or it has become muddied by such things as M&A deals, new product introductions, new competitors co-opting your vernacular, etc.), then go back to the drawing board and figure it out. Nothing will be more important in the days ahead than being able to tersely explain what you do better than anyone else and why it matters. And yep – easier said than done.
Which brings me to alignment. It is critical that your competitive positioning fuels all of your marketing communications and storytelling. As the customer journey fragmented into what seemed like infinite touchpoints, many marketers responded by trying to be all things to all people, shooting opportunistic messages into the market like shrapnel instead of doubling down on their core value proposition. In my experience, in fast-growing economies you can kinda get away with this. In contracting ones, not so much. There’s lots more to say on this topic of alignment, and as it turns out my boss (bonus points!) did a bang up job a while back, so I encourage you to give this a read. The takeaway: say less, more clearly, as often and as consistently as you can.
Finally, I offer this as a closing thought. Taking this trip down memory lane, for me anyway, feels necessary. COVID-19 has left none of us unscathed, but for an unforgivable number of fellow humans it has been downright eviscerating, revealing profound inequalities in our social systems and commercial enterprises. In the aftermath of both the dot.com and housing bubbles, our equities markets delivered outsized returns to those of us fortunate enough to have money in the game, but cast an ominous shadow obscuring just how vulnerable so many of our fellow Americans are to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. To wit, while I write this piece, Business Insider is reporting that just as millions of American workers lost their jobs, the DJIA and the S&P 500 posted their best month in more than 30 years.
Tech has always held out the promise of improving lives. And in all fairness, it has improved the lives of millions of people, maybe even billions – myself included. But as a proud member of the tech community, and in light of this new coronavirus, I earnestly hope we put our collective mojo to what might be the most important task of our lifetimes: creating a more equitable, sustainable, humane world for all of us.