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Top Game-Changing Companies

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These five companies changed direction post-recession and found the payoff.

Whether you believe the Great Recession is over or merely no longer headline news, there’s no doubt business conditions are brutal: Economic growth is tepid, unemployment remains stubbornly high, and oil and gas prices continue to spike.

Small wonder, then, that the Thomson Reuters and University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index dropped to its lowest level in months this past spring. With consumer spending propelling 70 percent of the U.S. economy, low confidence could further destabilize the country’s recovery.

Amid the so-called reset economy, change isn’t a constant, it’s the only constant. Here, we profile five businesses unafraid of new ideas and compelled by circumstance to advance them. The diversity of their markets (process manufacturing, food service, retail, advertising and technology) proves that strategic shifts—some small, some dramatic—can lead to growth, even during harsh economic downturns. Read on for inspiration and lessons in how to turn adversity into advantage.

The Story Teller: Eastman Chemical

By weaving compelling stories, Eastman Chemical changed its own.

On one level, Eastman Chemical’s “Design Insights” videos are short vignettes that showcase creative uses for the Tennessee company’s raw materials. On another, the video series is a game-changing move in Eastman’s campaign to collaborate with top designers. These simple yet thought-provoking videos have recast the $5 billion company’s image and converted its proximity to designers into business opportunities that help it compete against giants like Dow Chemical and DuPont.

The Design Insights videos were born when a smart idea collided with inconsistent execution. Having opened to strong reviews, the acclaimed Eastman Innovation Lab—a lavish website that doubles as a salon by welcoming industrial designers to learn about Eastman’s chemicals, plastics and fibers—soon fell to the budget axe. So the company’s director of design programs, Gaylon White, drew on his journalistic roots to accommodate his department’s new shoestring budget. At a conference, the former sportswriter pulled out a notebook and took down an ad hoc interview with an author. He posted it on Eastman’s website, and reception was positive.

In 2009, the interviews went visual, adding narratives that target their audience’s interests and make spare use of the Eastman name. The three- to five-minute videos feature top industrial designers speaking compellingly on how the creative process fuels their designs. The backstory of a reusable concentrate-filled bottle, for example. How a desert trek evolved into a meditation on sustainability. Building a better bra. Not exactly the stuff you’d expect from a chemical company based in the Appalachians.

Site traffic spiked, and the lift in Eastman’s profile brought fresh looks from designers who put the company’s materials to innovative, headline-grabbing uses, from Bluetooth headsets to lightweight pouches that make dirty water drinkable. The company gets plenty of video bang for its buck: White estimates that a recent 90-minute interview with a European design guru cost $12,000 for the film crew and will result in more than a dozen videos.

The soft-sell approach is by design. “A lot of our videos don’t even mention Eastman,” White points out. But by underscoring the company’s access to creative thinkers, the vignettes are “very strategic and create a dialogue at a level we would never be able to achieve otherwise,” he says. “We’re trying to inform and inspire through the use of entertaining visuals. We’re not just selling product.”

The Big Thinker: Calendar Islands Maine Lobster

A fishing co-op reaches out to connect with customers.

Tradition has its place along Maine’s rugged coast, but nonconformity is king. That’s especially true on Casco Bay’s Chebeague Island, a community bold enough to have seceded from the mainland in 2007 to form its own township. When lobster prices tanked in 2008, independent-minded local anglers happily ditched the time-honored distribution model of selling their catches to wholesalers through co-ops. In its place, they created a novel hybrid that closes the gap between lobster catchers and the shellfish lovers who consume their wares.

The customer connection is key for Calendar Islands Maine Lobster (CIML), and so is the business’s grassroots origin. Dismayed by the collapse of wholesale prices and chafing at commercial fishing’s restrictive hierarchy, the group hosted a meeting in March 2009. Word spread among the island’s 360 year-round residents that new ideas were welcome. Fifty people showed up.

The group spotted kindred spirits in the foodie movement. “The trend to specialty foods is something you can see happening before your eyes in supermarkets,” says CIML president John Jordan. “The knowledge of where food comes from and how it is prepared is exciting to those people. That was exciting to us.”

Capitalizing on a local connection, CIML met with the owners of Stonewall Kitchen, a $50 million gourmet food company based in nearby York. Together, they conceived a high-quality, harvester-owned brand of lobster-based specialty foods. In March 2010, Calendar Islands began delivering its line of frozen foods, including pizza and macaroni and cheese, to northern New England supermarkets.

“For us as fishermen, making the decision to do something with people who aren’t fishermen took a leap of faith,” says Jordan. But it’s Calendar Islands’ innovative reach beyond Maine’s borders, he adds, that the company hopes will generate more local benefits. “Our greatest goal is more distribution, so we can involve more harvesters and have a greater impact in our industry. The coast of Maine depends on lobstering. If we can find a way to bring more value back to the coast, that will be one of our most gratifying results.”

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