Recession Strategies From IDEO And Potatoes

I ran across an interesting article on the IDEO Website called Reframing Recession: Lessons from the potato (.pdf). The article discusses how potatoes became a popular food item in the 1790’s amidst the turmoil of a devastating grain market and repeated crop failures. The potato’s rise to the family table was driven by consumers’ innovation in trying to fill an overarching goal — feeding their families.

The article does a nice job of using this story to frame the reality of poor economic times: There’s still opportunities for growth. Here’s a very interesting observation from the article:

When the economy is down, people look to different product categories to solve persistent needs, making trade-offs that reflect both conscious and unconscious decisions. In the last recession we called this “The Lipstick Effect” – as budgets tightened, women still sought out ways to address their need to flaunt a little and sales of cosmetics went up. Just as in 2002, Estée Lauder’s makeup sales have recently felt an uptick – 11% in the third quarter of 2007.

The article ends up by making the following five recommendations:

  1. Hang out with your customers. Since customers will be looking to fill their needs in  different, cheaper ways, you need to spend time understanding their core needs. This is pretty much the 1st principle of Experience-Based Differentiation: Obsess about customer needs, not product features.
  2. Watch out for a new breed of unlikely competitors. Just like the potato replaced grain in the 1790s, consumers may turn to new categories of products as substitutes for your offerings.
  3. Be inspired by extreme value. Look for models to copy, across any industry, where people are getting more value for less.
  4. Go elephant hunting with a slingshot. Go find opportunities where you can provide a cheaper, simpler solution to replace expensive, complex ones. I like this one a lot. As a matter of fact it’s very close to one of the five disruptive customer experience strategies that I’ve called Ultrasimplicity.
  5. Don’t be afraid to prototype. Get some changes out in the field and be willing to learn, even through small-scale failures. The article provides this good advice: “Tougher times are exactly when you should give those managers who are closest to your customers the freedom to act on their insight and to experiment.” In the post Keep Customer Experience Momentum In A Recession, I also discuss the importance of innovation in a downturn.

The bottom line: Don’t react to a recession by clamping down on innovation.

Written by 

I am an experience management transformist, helping organizations improve business results by engaging the hearts and minds of their customers, employees, and partners. My "job" is Head of the Qualtrics XM Institute. The Institute is still being established, but our goal is to help organizations around the world thrive by mastering Experience Management (XM). As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. Prior to joining Qualtrics, I was managing partner of Temkin Group (leading CX research, advisory, and training firm), co-founder and chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (, and a VP at Forrester Research. I'm a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Check out my LinkedIn profile:

7 thoughts on “Recession Strategies From IDEO And Potatoes”

  1. Bruce,

    Interesting read, thanks for posting. I finally found someone that thinks like I do. My father always told me the best opportunities in life come out of recessions, that is the time to expand and grow, to look for new opportunities.

    Of course, growing up in Argentina that meant everyday 🙂 but the truth is that the principles are true. Recessions bring much needed clarity to business models and purposes, and I hope most people take advantage of that.

  2. I like this post. I am currently writing on the topic of restaurants cutting costs and it is kind of in relation to this. Thanks for sharing!

  3. A good article thanks. I agree that recession is an opportunity. I have just written an article on my my blog ( about a car racing film I remember seeing a few years ago. During the race there was an accident. The ultimate winner of the race was being interviewed and he was asked if he slowed down after seeing the accident. He said he didn’t, but he knew that everyone else would. He saw this as his opportunity to win, so he sped up. This is the same as the recession today, a time to advance not retreat.

  4. Liz: I’m happy that you found the post thought provoking. Good luck on your writing about restaurants. My take: Get moderately-priced restaurants (Chiles, TGIF, etc.) to introduce multi course, price-fixed menu options. The upscale equivalent of a happy meal.

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