The 2020 Mid-Year Economic Update_long

Why Being ‘Stuck in the Middle’ Isn’t So Bad

The pandemic has provided a unique opportunity for companies to prove their value in the supply chain — and they can look to Aerosmith and Gwen Stefani as examples.
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In the last year and a half, distributors have been tasked with a lot — navigate the pandemic, deal with supply chain disruptions, absorb escalating prices and handle lingering labor issues.

With so much on their plate, companies simply tried to get by. Another way to look at it: Distributors have been stuck in the middle, according to Kevin Dean, president and CEO of ManoByte, who delivered a keynote presentation titled “Fuel Growth with Strategic Inbound Marketing” at MDM’s recent Digital Distributor Summit.

But Dean, whose company provides digital transformation services, said distributors have yet another thing to worry about a year and a half into COVID-19. And this one might be the most disruptive of all

“On top of all that, there was a fundamental change brought about by technology that changed the way we conduct business altogether,” Dean said. “Through the pandemic, we saw how technology turned on its head the way customers buy and the way we have to sell.”

And because both vendors and buyers have also been reeling from the changes, that placed distributors in a precarious spot in the frazzled supply chain.

“Here you are, stuck in the middle, but I’m here to tell you that being in the middle isn’t all that bad,” Dean said. “Being in the middle gives you an amazing opportunity to deliver value at every point throughout the channel. It gives you this opportunity to add value in a way like never before.”

As Dean pointed out, a distributor’s greatest value doesn’t come from financing or product availability or quick delivery but rather about the experience they can provide to their customers. If COVID-19 taught distributors anything, it’s that how they handled changing customer demands against the backdrop of touchless delivery, curbside pickup and social distancing were of the utmost importance.

Now it’s important to carry that momentum forward in the new business cycle.

“The strategic decisions that you make right now and the strategic district decisions that you don’t make right now will determine your future in 18 to 24 months,” Dean said. “So as distributors, it’s important to keep in mind that how you sell, how you market and how you service customers is going to determine how you win in the future.”

Learn from Aerosmith and Gwen Stefani

But there is a path forward for distributors who might seem “stuck in the middle” (a reference, if you didn’t know, to the Stealers Wheel song from 1972). Dean used some slightly more current examples from rock and pop culture to illustrate how a company must adapt if they hope to survive in whatever shape the post-COVID landscape takes.

One example was from the 1980s when aging rock band Aerosmith decided to collaborate with upstart rap group Run DMC to remake Aerosmith’s hit “Walk This Way.” The remake gave new life to the original version — and the band itself. The lesson? Companies should look at their old ways of doing business through a new lens, including c-commerce, content marketing and other digital tools.

“As distributors, you should take that song as a reminder that leveraging new technology, new concepts, new perspectives can propel you to the next level of success,” Dean said. “We have the fundamentals of distribution down, but you need to start thinking like a tech company or a media company. When you combine your industry knowledge and your expertise with the proven best practices found through other channels and companies such as tech, and then you start thinking about your content the way that media companies think about content. This will create great value for the manufacturers you represent and the customers that you serve.”

Another of Dean’s examples was more recent. He said Gwen Stefani — who began in punk, moved to ska, dabbled in pop and then crossed over to country — always found success no matter the musical genre because of her ability to adapt. Distributors can use that to adjust to changing times and tastes.

As Dean noted, one of Stefani’s lyrics includes a line about having a “smile on my face.” That segued nicely into his closing comment on the need for distributors to relish their spot in the supply chain and fuel growth through new marketing, content and other digital opportunities.

“Over the past 18 months, there have been lots of reasons not to have a smile on your face, but at the same time, being in the middle as distributors is a great place to be,” Dean said. “There’s a new energy that you should be feeling. The truth is that a lot of distributors had record years last year despite the global challenges that we all had to endure. In the past 18 months, distributors have been adopting technology at rates faster than they have in the past 10 years. And many have had their eyes open to new opportunities. Those new opportunities are still available for all of us to take advantage of.”

To hear Dean’s full keynote and learn from other thought leaders in the digital space, click here to access MDM’s Digital Distributor Summit on-demand.

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