Even swine flu creates opportunities for canny retailers to tap into, says Jacqueline Gold

In a downturn it’s natural that our focus turns to cash flow and cost savings – we have to make it past today, so that we can trade tomorrow.

But the danger in placing too much emphasis on the operational elements of our business is that we take our eye off the ball when it comes to marketing. If the team you have are the creative geniuses they like to think they are, now is the time to challenge them to create short-term sales opportunities while making sure they steer the brand on a long-term course, where your brand’s value proposition isn’t reliant on lower prices.

If anyone ever doubted the value of brands, the impact of marketing – in particular PR, as played out in the news media – and the power of word of mouth, they should consider swine flu as a case study. Incidentally, it’s been a bad few weeks for pigs. Forever prefixed by “fat”, “greedy” and “smelly”, and now saddled with a killer pandemic, they’re also – thanks to the “snouts in the trough” parliamentary expenses scandal – now being compared to MPs. I’m not sure which is worse.

Lesson number one for me in all this is the power of brand names. There’s no way that swine flu would have been half as newsworthy if it was called H1N1. Whoever it was in Mexico who was quick to feed the media that this was swine flu, not Mexican flu, should win PR of the Year – the best piece of crisis management I’ve seen in years.

In these uncertain times, when consumer confidence is low, bad news stories seem to come into sharper relief: you can almost hear our customers bemoan another problem to compound the others. However, what’s really happening is that our customers’ needs are changing, and doing so quicker than our normal planning cycles. In the short-term this gives us new sales opportunities: tissues, cold remedies and anti-bacterial gel sales should be going through the roof right now.

The first brand to align itself to swine flu could well become market leader.

Over the longer term, the brands that position themselves as authoritative and helpful will gain the trust of the consumer. I’d expect retailers like Boots and Holland & Barrett to be first page on Google for swine flu, putting forward experts in their name for the news media and talk shows, as well as having a prominent in-store message.

The moral of this story is that now is the time to act swiftly and decisively; to recognise that for every illness there’s a cure and for every problem, an opportunity – and given where the economy is right now, there should be plenty of them.

To maximise these sales opportunities that arise from the rapidly changing needs of our customers, we must also be relevant. The businesses that do this will be the ones that bring home the bacon.

Jacqueline Gold is chief executive of Ann Summers