How to take advantage of a recession to build your brand

Contributed to EO by Vladimir Gendelman, an EO Detroit member and founder and CEO of Company Folders, Inc., an award-winning online printing company that has helped over 5,000 businesses print more than 20 million presentation folders. The company made the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America for three consecutive years. Vladimir has shared his expertise to help entrepreneurs get the most for your printing budget and save big on custom-printed materials. Here he shares his experience on how to continue building your brand during a recession:

When sales are high, we focus resources on taking and filling orders. There’s always a list of important improvements that slides down the priority list in favor of the urgent day-to-day tasks that keep a company running. As painful as it is when sales dip, the silver lining is suddenly having a chance to do all the stuff there’s never time to do.

The key to making the most of this opportunity is to focus on improvements that enhance how we deliver on brand promise.

During the 2008 recession, while everyone else was hanging onto the gunwales of tossing ships, offering bargains, and hoping for a quick end to the pain, a restaurant near our office started remodeling. They knocked down a wall and installed garage doors to provide better flow to their outdoor patio and redesigned the interior, dramatically improving the dining experience. Rather than holding tight and offering bargains, they doubled down on their brand. The place was packed right through the recession, and they’re still doing great.

The following is my advice on how to not just survive, but thrive, during a downturn along with examples of how we’ve used these strategies.

Identify opportunities

The time freed up by a downturn is a chance to revisit everything—branding, marketing, offerings, procedures and processes. All those projects that will streamline internal processes and enhance customer experience? This is the time to do them. Then, when business speeds up, and it will, you’ll be ready to ride that wave to greater success than before.

When COVID hit, face-to-face meetings and events were cancelled. Nobody was ordering customized presentation folders. Company Folders, Inc. took a 70 percent hit to sales in the first month. We quickly realized that maximizing sales depended on increasing conversions on our website. We particularly focused on products customers were still ordering, such as report folders for accountants and attorneys. With plenty of time on our hands, we tackled a slate of software improvements and sales training initiatives. And when in-person events started opening up, the improved conversion rate helped us rebound quickly to surpass pre-pandemic numbers.

Skip the race to the bottom

Although customers tighten the purse strings in a recession, reducing prices doesn’t always serve the long-term health of companies or the needs of customers. Generally, when you reduce prices, something’s got to give. It’s impossible to provide excellence at bargain basement prices.

Reducing prices means reduced margins which eventually leads to cutting corners—cheaper goods, less cleaning in bathrooms, fewer support specialists, etc. It may save customers money in the short run, but the cost is long-term damage to the brand.

Focus on value

When faced with economic challenges, customers may look for good prices, but what they really need is the best value. They’re not asking, “How do I spend the least?” but, “How do I get the most for the money I spend?” They would rather have great products and services at good prices than sub-par ones at low prices.

Our customer service staff works with customers to select products that give them the most for their money. For example, a high-quality product that can be used for multiple purposes, such as a report cover with a window and fasteners is not necessarily inexpensive, but it is a great value.

Get creative

There are plenty of ways to give customers a little extra without spending a lot. Take this time to dig into what customers want, and find ways to fill those needs. It’s a great chance to increase customer satisfaction and loyalty.

For example, we offer the only lifetime warranty in the printing business. It actually costs us nothing because if there’s an issue with an order, it’s our policy to make it right. But having it in writing gives customers a sense of security, particularly when they’re keeping a closer watch than usual on the budget.

Over the course of the pandemic, we started providing design services. They’re free for quick and easy projects. And we provide them at close to cost for more extensive projects. It’s a small addition to the overall project cost. The customer gets a great design and one-stop shopping, and they’re more likely to place the order with us.

For customers who really need a quality product at a lower price, we offer a discount in exchange for printing our logo on their piece. It’s a win-win where the customer gets a great value, and we get our name out there.

Expand your team

Hiring is time consuming. It requires investing energy and attention into crafting exactly the right roles. A recession is a great time put the effort into reviewing HR needs, developing thoughtful job descriptions, and doing in-depth interviews. Best of all, it’s a chance to snap up great people who are available due to workforce reductions.

Keep building the brand

A brand encompasses a purpose, a set of products, services and solutions. It stands for a set of values. It’s tempting, when the going gets tough, to shift focus to slashing prices. But that’s short-term thinking. Long-term thinking means making sure customers continue to get what they expect from the brand. If you’re known for being green, be the greenest. If your brand is built around innovation, offer something new.

Our brand is built on helping businesses stand out in the marketplace with superior print materials. We have curated the largest selection of high-quality presentation products and we customize them with a full range of die-cuts, coatings, printing methods and accessories. We have also invested extensively in training staff to provide outstanding, expert customer support.

Going into the 2008 recession, we stuck with those values, adding products, and expanding our customer service team. That year, our growth was a little over 300 percent. We didn’t shift our focus to survival. The focus stayed on value, quality and service.

As we’re staring down the barrel of another recession, current projects include improving our CRM and investing in software development—adding customer touchpoints, improving communication, and making it easier for customers to access order information and upload artwork. We’re doing additional pre-press process training so we can answer any customer question. And we’re adding a new line of durable poly products such as plastic report covers.

Invest in customer service

After a purchase, what customers remember is their satisfaction with both the product and their experience with the company. When a customer finds a company that invests time and attention into ensuring they get what they need, they will stick with that company. And if they’re really thrilled, they’ll leave a good review, which will attract new customers. That’s the key to both stability and growth.

Stay the course

The key thing to remember in a recession is that, because people are paying more attention to every penny they spend, they want the best quality and value for it. They’ll remember where they got great quality and service, and while other companies are cutting back, companies that maintain excellence will stand out even more than usual. That means happy customers, great reviews, growth, an untarnished brand, and long-term strength.



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