For aggressive plumbing contractors, 2013 will be one of the greatest years ever. The reason is most plumbing contractors are running scared, pulling back, trying to save their way to prosperity. It won’t work. It never does. Their aggressive competitors will double down on marketing when they are cutting back, stealing their customers as they appear to disappear.

Economically it is scary. Politicians have not learned the lessons of the past or are not acting in the best interests of the nation. The business community is hunkering down. Consumers are uncertain. No one knows what is going to happen with taxes, inflation, debt, and regulations other than more of each.

And yet, we’ve been here before. There was never more uncertainty than the 1930s. In contrast to his reputation as a laissez-faire president, Hoover raised tariffs, taxes, and spending to unheard of levels. Roosevelt adopted every one of Hoover’s bad policies, made them worse, and came up with his own. Most businesses froze in place. Some feared FDR was on the way to becoming a dictator. 

Still, even in the face of the most prolonged economic malaise of our nation’s history, many businesses thrived. They prospered. They made extraordinary gains. 

Before the Great Depression, Ford dominated automobile sales. Chevy decided to take Ford on with advertising, believing that Ford’s more conservative management would not respond. They were right and this led directly to the rise of the Chevy brand. If you get aggressive, will your competitors play it safe or try to match you?

Proctor & Gamble became a goliath during the Depression. P&G executives studied their product offering and figured no matter what the condition of the economy, everyone needed soap (Hmm, can you think of any other products or services people need, no matter the condition of the economy?) P&G marketed their soap products heavily, investing in the new media of the day… radio. P&G sponsored radio dramas, which became known as “soap operas.” What would happen if you increased your marketing? What are today’s new medias?

Floyd Odlum saw trouble on the water before the stock market crash of 1929 and got out of the market. After the market crashed and the depression ensued, Odlum had cash on hand and put it to use. He bought undervalued and troubled companies, turning some around, consolidating others, and breaking up the rest. He became one of the 10 richest Americans following this strategy. Are their troubled competitors you could buy for pennies on the dollar to expand your customer base?

Levi Strauss was another company that performed well. The company’s sales fell 50% as the laborers who were their primary market, bought fewer jeans and wore them longer. The company decided to move upscale and play on their western heritage. They did something unimaginable at the time. They branded the jeans with a red tag stitched along the pocket. The conventional wisdom was that no one would wear a company’s brand on their clothes. As it turned out, the brand became desirable and fed on itself. How could you get your brand inside the home? What installed products could carry your brand name?

At the start of the Depression, talking movies were the rage. However, the Depression hit movie industry hard. Movies were considered luxuries that were easy to cut back on. The film industry responded with creative marketing. They bundled (i.e., the double feature). They used giveaways and promotions (e.g., “dish night” at the movies was similar to “bat night” for Major League Baseball). They offered door prizes. They created loyalty programs where consumers could earn prizes by attending movies. After falling at the start of the Depression, industry revenues skyrocketed by the end. What could you bundle to make a more compelling offer?  What promotions could you run?

Federated (i.e., Macy’s) realized people were struggling to pay for the things they wanted, so they made it easy. They began financing consumers. Maybe you don’t want to finance your customers directly, but you can find financing sources. Are there local banks that would extend homeowners another credit card that could be used to finance, say, a water heater? What other financing sources can you find?

Martin guitars refused the push by retailers to discount. The company did, however, innovate.  They developed less expensive offerings that more people could afford while Martin maintained margins. They introduced the 14-fret neck, the dreadnought guitar, and the archtop guitar. How can you expand your offering? What new products and services can you offer?

Matt Michel is CEO of the Service Roundtable, which helps plumbers succeed with easily downloaded plumbing sales, marketing, and management templates, a contractor support community, and a free member buying group.  Get a new magazine style newsletter and post card newsletter, customized for the plumbing industry each quarter as part of your Service Roundtable $50 membership.  Call 877.262.3341 or visit ServiceRoundtable.com for more information.