In a tense scene from the 1998 movie “Enemy of the State,” Gene Hackman says to Will Smith:
“In guerrilla warfare, you try to use your weaknesses as strengths. If they’re big and you’re small, then you’re mobile and they’re slow. You’re hidden and they’re exposed.”
We are in a war. Our immediate enemy is the coronavirus, but in the long run, we’re going to be facing a complete change of consumer expectation and behavior. So far, these changes have been masked by the fact that our customers are all “sheltering in place.” But be in no doubt: When we’re released, everything will be different. We’re not going to travel, eat, shop, or exercise the same way…perhaps forever.
Let me get straight to the point. Don’t expect things to revert back to “normal,” and don’t count on any business model surviving intact. Our slogan needs to be: Change or die. Never before has that statement been as relevant as it is today. It’s time — right now — to question every business model.
Yesterday, I passed by my favorite food outlet. Seemingly overnight, out of grim necessity, the owner has converted this fine-dining restaurant into a “last-minute” takeaway store. With chairs and tables stacked sadly in the corner, this space seemed desperate to host a romantic evening. Instead, the special ambience has succumbed to more pressing demands: survival mode, in overdrive.
“What’s your plan once the restaurant opens again?” I asked the owner. He told me he hadn’t had time to think about it. He was too busy getting through one day at a time, keeping his people employed, and paying his vendors.
But in our current paralysis — partly hibernating, partly frantic — we can’t afford to neglect the future. We need to work on finding the answer to that simple question: “What’s your plan?”
Tim Lowe, president of Lowes Foods, recently revealed to me: “Those people who won’t fundamentally change their business model as they exit the other side of COVID-19 — they just didn’t get the message. We all have to change.” Having weathered numerous real hurricanes, as well as the “hurricane” caused by e-commerce, he talks from experience. Confronted by our current crisis, Lowes has completely changed its business model in just six weeks. Ironically, that’s something that had taken them six years in the past to do.
He is not alone. Intertek, the world’s leading global quality assurance company, is a 45,000-person organization that tests the reliability of everything from the luggage, power plugs and blenders we use every day to oil platforms and even the black box in Airforce One. Under the pressure of COVID-19, Intertek just did the same thing as Lowes, introducing a new business model in just three weeks.
Andre Lacroix, the ceo of Intertek, asked his team: “How are our customers going to change post-COVID-19, and how can we help them?” Just three weeks later they introduced ProTek, a brand-new company that trains staff in cleanliness, certifies buildings, airline cabins, and hotel rooms, and verifies it with a special seal for guests, passengers, and the world to see.
Six weeks into the crisis, Intertek’s new Protek global service is oversubscribed. Most likely, this will transform Intertek’s business model into the foreseeable future.
With Gene Hackman’s movie-line in mind — “Use your weaknesses as strengths” — I’m wondering how to turn the global challenge of coronavirus into opportunity. While waiting for my pasta at my restaurant, I challenged the owner over a quick brainstorming session. Let’s assume the government requires at least six feet of space between each table in your restaurant and no more than 20 guests at any one time. The consequences will be severe: fewer customers, less income. How could you play this not as a fatal disaster, but as an opportunity?
Obviously, some fundamentals will need to change. But how…? By reintroducing “the show.” Cooking at the table, preparing a delicious Irish coffee in front of the guests, conducting an exciting flambé show, rolling the trollies around in the restaurant. All this wasn’t possible in pre-COVID-19 days. “But your restaurant will have the space and staff to do it now,” I suggested.
He smiled, and the very next day he assigned all his waiters a task: to each create and rehearse their own signature show in the lead-up to the restaurant’s reopening.
As the world opens up again, your business will face a dramatically new reality. It’s going to require you to ask: Which elements in your business model need to fundamentally change? If you answer, “Nothing at all, we’ll get right back to business and nothing will have changed,” then I suggest that you didn’t get COVID-19’s message.
Martin Lindstrom is a branding expert and best-selling author of “Small Data” and, most recently, “Buyology for a Coronavirus World.”