As Action 2000 last week launched TV ads to persuade businesses to
respond to the Millennium Bug problem, household-name companies were
reluctant to discuss what the change of century meant for their
Press officers insisted that their marketing colleagues would get the
benefit of their multi-million-pound, company-wide Year 2000 programmes,
but were unwilling to allow the marketers to speak for themselves.
It is true that one of the major Year 2000 challenges facing them is
IT-based: they do need to identify computer hardware and software which
uses dates, discover whether it will recognise the Year 2000 (instead of
assuming that ’00’ means 1900), fix or replace it and then test the
A Year 2000 paper by the Direct Marketing Association highlights
invoicing, interest calculation, age-related mailshots and sell-by-dates
as potential problem areas.
Faulty sell-by dates, for example, could kill people as well as
Ray Perry, director of marketing at the Chartered Institute of
Marketing, says: ’Ultimately it could destroy a brand. All your yoghurts
could appear with the wrong date stamp, and poison your customers.’
Barclays and Midland banks are hoping to reap a marketing advantage from
their Year 2000 support to business customers. A Midland spokesman says:
’Part of our work in terms of advising our customers is to build a
profile of ourselves as being Year-2000 aware.’
Could something similar be achieved when - as seems likely - consumers
become increasingly concerned about the millennium? Niki Akhurst,
marketing director of the government-founded company Action 2000, says
’Companies will get far greater benefit from reassuring their customers
than from saying nothing, as long as they can back (those claims)
Others regard discretion as their best bet. Alan Smith, director of
Prudential’s millennium programme, said: ’We are being deliberately
reactive. If something untoward did happen, we’d look pretty silly.’ But
Prudential will have a marketing advantage, he adds, if come January
2000, its competitors are in turmoil while it is coping well.
Whether your company decides to be proactive or discreet about its
readiness, customers will be upset if their questions on the matter are
But according to communications consultant Regester Larkin, which last
month surveyed 50 companies, many firms are ill-prepared. Researchers
posing as worried customers found one ’leading roadside assistance
organisation’ claiming that to disclose its level of millennium
compliance would breach the Data Protection Act, while a ’major
supermarket chain’ insisted that its preparations for 2000 were
Companies need to do better than this, not least because consumer panic
will cause disasters even if computers perform perfectly. A rush to
withdraw savings from banks or to stock up on food, for example, could
lead to banks with no money and shops with no food. Asda is taking this
possibility seriously enough to consider research on whether there will
be panic buying.
Some marketers are currently facing the challenge of explaining to
customers why their companies may be unable to offer any service over
the date-change period. BA, for example, cannot instruct air-traffic
control organisations or airports, and it may well decide not to fly to
certain locations in the run-up to 2000. Thomson has not yet decided
whether to operate over the period.
While reassuring customers is the easiest thing to do, knowingly
misleading them, let alone harming them, could be commercial suicide.
Marketers should remember the words of a Midland Bank spokesman: ’Until
the date actually arrives, no one can be 100% sure what will
Which leads to another year 2000 lesson for marketers: the importance of
contingency planning. At a personal level, this means preparing for the
possibility that your company will not survive the recession which some
people predict will follow the date change. At a professional level, it
means knowing how you’ll get your goods and services to market if the
usual channels fail.
- Get your software, hardware and embedded chips fixed and tested as
- Find out about the readiness of the companies on which you depend for
supply and distribution. Action 2000 is encouraging companies to sign a
pledge to take positive action rather than legal action on the bug.
- Ensure that customer-facing staff know what to do in response to
queries about your company’s millennium readiness.
- Consider using the millennium as an opportunity to show what a
well-organised company you are, but recognise the dangers.
- Get informed about the worst case scenarios for your company and have
a contingency plan in case things do go terribly wrong.
- Contact Action 2000 for more information: 0845 601 2000.