Succeeding in business requires risk. Despite bromides about failure not being an option, truth is that it’s a very real possibility. Acknowledging that and preparing for the possibility of failure isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s the sign of a professional.
Professionals understand that failure is an option because professionals understand risk. As the military adage goes, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Likewise, the best-laid business plan rarely survives contact with the marketplace (apologies to Helmuth von Moltke). Circumstances change. Things can go wrong. “Everybody has a plan ’til they get punched in the face,” ~ Mike Tyson. Brands must be nimble. Preparation and the right response can be the difference between disappointment or disaster.
Failure can be a simple stumble or a full-on face plant, a private setback or a public catastrophe, but it doesn’t have to mean defeat. New Coke was a colossal, fizzy failure, yet Coca-Cola Classic remains the world’s best selling soft drink. Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple only to return a decade later to turn failure into fortune.
Amid the spectacle of failure a brand must get out in front of the story, defining the situation before somebody else does. It starts at the top; leadership must make its presence felt. Succinctly explain what happened, what’s next, and what impact it all will have on consumers. Don’t side step. Owning the story means owning up to the failure.
Sidestepping was Japanese automaker Toyota’s reaction in early 2010 when brakes that didn’t work and accelerators that worked on their own resulted in numerous accidents and tragic deaths. By initially denying any design defects and minimizing the issues as mere software glitches Toyota’s response appeared less than forthcoming. Failure to accept responsibility in the face of irrefutable facts created a public-relations nightmare.
Toyota eventually recalled the affected vehicles and President Akio Toyoda apologized to customers for the “inconvenience” – while also suggesting that poor driving was partially to blame. It was far from a satisfying mea culpa. Woeful crisis management in the face of failure cost the company billions, plus incalculable damage to the brand’s reputation of quality, reliability and integrity.
Perhaps the shame and embarrassment of owning up to failure in a culture committed to quality played a part in Toyota’s lackadaisical response. Notwithstanding cultural mores, another Japanese automaker reacted very differently when they, too, hit a bump in the road.
By all accounts, the 2012 Honda Civic is a failure. So bad have been the reviews and sales that Honda CEO Takanobu Ito publicly accepted full responsibility for the perennial best seller’s poor performance. Honda has since taken the unprecedented step of moving up the nameplate’s mid-cycle retooling by one year to 2013 in order to correct the car’s failings. Some brands are able to correct course even more quickly in the face of failure.
Last year, Netflix made the destined-to-fail decision to split their brand into two web sites; one, still called Netflix, dedicated to streaming content, and another called Qwikster which would assume the mail-based DVD rental service that originated with Netflix. Two websites. Two accounts. Two passwords. It was too much. Customers were nonplussed… and pissed off.
After three weeks of vitriolic backlash, canceled memberships and sharply declining share prices CEO Reed Hastings announced Qwikster would be quashed and Netflix would return to business as usual:
“It is clear that for many of our members two websites would make things more difficult, so we are going to keep Netflix as one place to go for streaming and DVDs. This means no change: one website, one account, one password… in other words, no Qwikster.”
The road to success is littered with more failures than we can mention here. Sometimes, bad business decisions happen to good brands. Other times, plans are disrupted by events beyond your control. Whatever the cause, you can control your response. Be prepared to correct course quickly. Recovery is possible, but you can’t always fix failure by correcting a misstep. Preparing for failure means also preparing for the worst.
Presidential speechwriter William Safire considered a worst case scenario in July, 1969, while the world waited anxiously for Apollo 11 to land safely on the Moon. Failure was a very real, present possibility. In a solemn memo to White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman Safire crafted a contingency plan in the form of a speech to be delivered by President Nixon in the event astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became stranded on the lunar surface:
To: H. R. Haldeman
From: Bill Safire
July 18, 1969.
IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
PRIOR TO THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT:
The President should telephone each of the widows-to-be.
AFTER THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT, AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE MEN:
A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.
Thankfully, those plans never needed to be executed. However, some 17 years later, Ronald Reagan would deliver his own message to mollify a shocked nation with a moment of pure presidential perfection in the wake of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
As President Reagan asserted in that speech, “The future is not for the faint-hearted.” Success in business rarely comes from playing it safe. Shoot for the moon. Set massive and unreasonable goals that freak you out a little.
Failure is always an option, but brands that don’t take a chance don’t stand a chance. Don’t fear failure. Respect risk. Fearing failure and being prepared to respond should failure occur are very different things. Preparation separates professionals from pretenders.
Happy New Year.