May 14, 2020 Heather Wilson

Making a Pivot During Challenging Times

As barbershops, restaurants, bars and specialty retailers across the nation have been forced to  close for weeks or even months, businesses owners are reaching a three-way fork in the road: 1) they can hope for a rapid reopening and pray that business comes back; 2) they can walk away from a lifetime of sweat equity and sacrifice; 3) or they can pivot and try to find new ways to turn a profit and stay in business. In this article, we look at option three, making the big pivot. 

In our previous blog — “Events are Canceled, Now What?” — we showed how global brands like Coachella, the NFL, NASCAR, Apple and Mercedes-Benz pivoted when live, in-person events were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Virtual events, live streams and other online alternatives have been a lifeline for many companies, but for others a more radical transformation has been necessary for survival.

We have identified a number of businesses who haven’t just changed the way they market to customers or communicate with the media, they’ve changed their entire business model. Because the pandemic disrupted the way they do business, some companies pivoted to provide entirely new services, sell to new types of customers and expand or change product offerings. 

A Kahn Media client that makes automotive HVAC systems adapted its design and engineering expertise to create personal protective equipment (PPE) for its employees and healthcare workers while continuing its normal manufacturing operations. PepsiCo pivoted by creating online bodegas where consumers can buy snacks like chips, candy and soda and have them sent directly to their homes. City Brew Tours shifted from offering in-person brewery tours to offering customized beer-and-cheese pairing parties on Zoom.

These pivots aren’t just adaptations to a new economic reality — they are the types of reinvention that create entirely new business models and create fortunes. These are inspiring stories about the ingenuity and courage of entrepreneurs and their teams.

Photo Courtesy of Platinum Events

Platinum Events is a Chicago-based firm that provides stage fabrication, audiovisual equipment and lighting for conferences, trade shows and events like the Grammys and CES. Its business came to a screeching halt as the COVID-19 outbreak forced the cancellation of events around the world. Rather than sit around hand-wringing while his business was put on hold, founder Justin Jacobson pivoted and rebranded his company as Platinum Sanitation Services, now  offering a full line of decontamination services to help businesses keep their facilities as safe as possible for workers. Jacobson saved his company, and the jobs of his employees.

Photo Courtesy of The Chef’s Garden

When restaurants were forced to close due to social-distancing restrictions, The Chef’s Garden, known nationwide among chefs as the go-to source for high-end produce, had to find a way to survive. For more than 30 years, it operated on a B2B model, providing produce to world-renowned restaurants like French Laundry and Per Se. The pandemic forced the farm’s founders to make an abrupt pivot to a direct-to-consumer (D2C) digital platform to market its fancy produce boxes to home cooks. The Chef’s Garden changed its business model within 24 hours — literally overnight — and saved the farm in the process. Part of its success has been the use of social media and influencers to get the word out, as well as producing how-to videos on Instagram.

The team at Hoonigan, a hub for enthusiast car content on YouTube and social, went from having its camera crews at events all over the country and weekly filming on-site at its “Burnyard” set at a Southern California racetrack to having to send its team and talent home and get creative with how they create content. It started with a new series called “Home Wrenchers” where hosts worked on their cars at home and shared the process with fans, followed by an all-new daily live stream where the team conducts interviews with influencers and personalities from across the industry that are streamed on YouTube and Facebook for three hours a day. They even took over the popular Petersen Automotive Museum for a “night at the museum” filmed by a single host, all alone with an armful of GoPros. Fans are stuck at home too, and they’re hungry for content, so Hoonigan figured out a way to give it to them. 

Custom Ink, a provider of custom-printed T-shirts, apparel and promotional products, was forced to close its two dozen stores across the country as a result of social-distancing restrictions. Fortunately, the company was already set up for online D2C sales. Custom Ink pivoted by expanding its product offerings to include face masks (some of which can be customized with company logos or other designs) and hand sanitizer. It sells packs of washable, reusable masks in packs of 10 to 120 for as little as $2 each, and it promises fast shipping. Custom Ink still sells T-shirts, but now it also provides products that everyone wants and needs as they navigate a world where social-distancing behavior and vigilant sanitization are part of daily life.

When Vintage Air, one of Kahn Media’s automotive PR clients that’s a leading manufacturer of performance air conditioning systems, couldn’t get personal protective equipment (PPE) for its employees or the surrounding community, it pivoted and made its own. Working with a family physician, Vintage Air drew upon its decades of precision design and manufacturing experience to develop high-quality face shields, as you can see in this video.

These companies aren’t global brands. They are small to midsized businesses run by entrepreneurial leaders who put it all on the line to provide products and services for customers and jobs for employees. An article in The New York Times, which describes how many small businesses have had to adapt as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, tells us what many of us already know: business owners and leaders — the ones who will not only survive but thrive during the pandemic — must be nimble, creative and bold.

While the Fed is warning that America is in for a long, slow recovery there is also opportunity buried in all that bad news. Fear of infection means ride-sharing services are way down, but as the economy and businesses begin to open back up, people still need to get to work, so car sales will likely begin to rise. Not just new cars, but used ones too, and that’s an opportunity for the aftermarket parts industry.

Airlines are suffering and most people surveyed have little interest in getting on a plane for a vacation, but with cabin fever at an all-time high, people still want to get away — a prime opportunity for the RV industry. As Americans suffered from boredom during the quarantine many took up new hobbies, from knitting and baking to wrenching on an old car or motorcycle. Many took up bicycling, a resurgence large enough to motivate leading manufacturers like Giant, Specialized and Trek to roll out 2021 models early because bike shops across the country were running out of inventory. 

These shifts in consumer interest and behavior, coupled with changes to the way people are shopping, consuming media and interacting with brands and businesses, represents the single largest opportunity for small and midsized businesses since the dot-com revolution in the 1990s. Barbershops are launching e-commerce stores to sell beard oil and pomade, machine shops are selling firearm accessories, auto aftermarket manufacturers are pivoting to bike and RV parts, and so on. 

The key to a successful pivot is to move quickly, stay lean, use inexpensive digital tools for both market research and marketing, and to reward customers with a positive experience from the moment they enter the funnel until after they have the product in hand and have already left a glowing review on social

J. Paul Getty made his fortune buying oil when prices were low during the Great Depression. Joe Kennedy — father to JFK, RFK and the whole “Camelot” clan — did the same with alcohol during Prohibition. Amazon barely survived the dot-com crash in 2000, but in the financial crisis of 2008-10 it leaned into a major pivot, away from being just an online bookseller and toward becoming the “everything store” that sells every conceivable type of consumer good as well as  web hosting, cloud services, streaming and so much more. You know how that story turned out. 

If things are looking grim, dig deep and find that next opportunity, particularly if it allows you to leverage your existing business assets (your brand, your team, even your supply chain). Push hard, don’t stop and if all else fails, contact us for a free consultation. Kahn Media has helped nearly a dozen companies survive and thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic, with pivots toward digital and direct-to-consumer sales reshaping how American manufacturing companies are selling products and interacting with their consumers.

We can help you too. Reach out to us via email at