A Determined Win


By Rubens Pessanha Filho
Research contributions by Tiffany Scott

“It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

Rocky Balboa

Leveraging setbacks to fuel success

The road to success is not always a straight line. It’s often marked by ups and downs, failures and frustrations, anxiety and fears, and, most importantly, comeback stories. Today we’ll talk about companies that almost went out of business but came back strong, businesses that reacted to customer complaints in a positive way to make them better than ever, and personal stories of individuals who faced challenges and overcame them. We’ll share what our current research teaches us about how organizations and individuals can approach difficult times in a positive way. 

On the road to long-term business survival, ups and downs are a normal part of life. Even though you could debate if businesses are built to last — for example, 88 percent of the companies listed on the 1955 FORTUNE 500® aren’t on the list anymore (Govindarajan & Faber, 2016) — those that do survive seem to keep learning and bouncing back.

Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.

– Steve Jobs

To find out how they do it, we asked more than 1,000 customers in the United States and Canada to think of businesses that faced difficult situations and came back stronger. We asked them to describe, in one word, what it takes to achieve that feat. The consumers’ perspectives were enlightening since they are the ones who vote with their wallets to allow a business to survive, or not. To bolster our data, we did an extensive review of brands such as Apple, LEGO, CBS, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Nintendo, Marvel, General Motors, Delta Air Lines, Netflix, J.Crew, and Burberry (Bedu, 2014; Feloni, 2014; Nazario, 2015; Smart licensing, 2014; The biggest business comebacks, 2015).     

Here are the common ties that bind most of these comeback stories:

Faith: Comebacks take time, and faith will keep your business going when others have given up. It will help you be patient while you keep moving forward, and it will motivate you to keep trying after failures. Faith was identified by customers as a key comeback ingredient. To maintain faith, celebrate small wins and don’t lose focus on your bigger goals.

Focus: Traits like relying on your core principles, borrowing from the past, reflecting on who you really are, and keeping it simple while staying resilient are key to comebacks. LEGO, Apple, and General Motors are a few companies that leveraged focus to reduce complexity, streamline processes, and close weakening business sectors and product lines. Over time, businesses may forget where they came from and lose focus on what matters.

Funding: Another strong word that emerged from our research was “money.” Our review of comeback stories showed that access to funding during difficult times was the key to many business resurgences. It’s important for businesses to exercise financial discipline so reserves are available to help them weather difficult times.

Innovation: The building blocks of innovation — creativity, ingenuity, and ideas — matter. Innovation also includes new ways to operate in a changing marketplace, like partnerships and strategic collaborations. It takes courage to innovate when things are bleak, so it pays to build innovation into your culture to help ward off stagnation.

Leadership and teamwork: Leaders who orchestrate comebacks understand the importance of teams and recognize that success requires the best of people. They inspire faith that a comeback is possible, and they lead the charge to find a new focus and discover innovations. Several of the comeback stories we reviewed — such as Apple, LEGO, Walt Disney Animation Studios, J.Crew, and CBS — started with a change in leadership at the top.

To add a new dimension to our research, we looked at businesses from the perspective of consumers, specifically their negative experiences and complaints and how businesses reacted. Almost 1 million complaints are received by Better Business Bureau every year, and some complaints target businesses that have a good reputation. The upside is that complaints can humanize a business — 57 percent of consumers are suspicious of brands that have only positive reviews — and serve as a platform for betterment (PowerReviews, 2014). What can we learn from businesses that approached consumer complaints as a way to improve? How are these negative experiences best handled from a customer’s point of view?

We asked consumers in the United States and Canada to think of situations when they gave a business some form of negative feedback, and we asked them what response would be most likely to preserve their loyalty to the business. The top responses were to provide a positive resolution; tell the truth and don’t make excuses; see criticism as an opportunity to improve; listen to the feedback or complaint; and say you’re sorry (Figure 1). Transgressions are forgivable — less than 15 percent of consumers expressed the contrary — if businesses have the courage to face them and can learn from them. It takes a strong sense of ethics for businesses to admit their mistakes, but taking the voice of consumers to heart and maintaining open communication can minimize the need for comebacks by avoiding troubled times in the first place.

Leaders who orchestrate comebacks understand the importance of teams and recognize that success requires the best of people. They inspire faith that a comeback is possible, and they lead the charge to find a new focus and discover innovations.

Comebacks are not just for businesses; they are most frequent among individuals. How different are their stories? What does it take for individuals to come back from negative experiences, and what can businesses learn from them?

Once again, we consulted more than 1,000 individuals in the United States and Canada and asked them to think about their personal comeback stories. We asked them to describe, in one word, what it takes to make a personal comeback. Words like faith, determination, courage, perseverance, resilience, and strength were most prominent.

To dig a bit further, we looked at publicly available stories about well-known people who overcame setbacks and came back stronger. Although we focused on public figures, a comeback is within everyone’s reach.

In 2016, three-time world surf champion Mick Fanning made his triumphant return to the site of his notorious 2015 encounter with a great white shark. Fanning is no stranger to tragedy. When he was a teenager, he lost one of his brothers to a car accident. As if that weren’t enough, just before it was Fanning’s turn to compete in the 2015 Billabong Pipe Masters final in Hawaii, he learned about the death of his oldest brother. But Fanning decided to go ahead and compete because that’s what his brother loved to watch him do. He says, “The world deals people these cards. You have the choice to be crippled by them, or you have the choice to go, okay, I’m going to go and make a better version of myself” (ESPN, 2016). Fanning’s story highlights the power of choice and the importance of approaching difficult times as an opportunity to be a better person.

The world deals people these cards. You have the choice to be crippled by them, or you have the choice to go, okay, I’m going to go and make a better version of myself.

– Mick Fanning

Nelson Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician, and philanthropist. After 27 years in prison, he negotiated the end of apartheid in South Africa, bringing peace to a racially divided country and leading the fight for human rights around the world. Mandela exemplifies the words we identified earlier that describe what it takes for individuals to come back. In the true spirit of what it takes to come back, Mandela said, “I never lose. I either win or learn.”

How are the comeback stories of businesses and individuals connected? Interestingly, several key words were the same for both: faith, determination, and resilience. Organizations are made of individuals, and perhaps not surprisingly, we found that some organizations that staged a comeback had individuals at the helm who overcame personal challenges themselves. Personal comebacks can shape a person’s character and leadership abilities. They make us a better version of ourselves.

You don’t need to wait for a low point in organizational or personal life to build the character and leadership that will help overcome difficult times when they come. As we have learned from those who have gone before us, comebacks start from within. Make good choices, aim to be better, and view failure as a precursor to success.

I never lose. I either win or learn.

– Nelson Mandela

We hope these comeback stories will inspire you to reflect on your own experiences and how they made you better, and we hope they’ll ignite your faith that a better future is possible and could be waiting for you around the corner. Let’s start a movement about the truth of success in which we celebrate setbacks as part of the path to great achievements. Speak up and share your own #ComebackStory or one that inspires you. 

Bedu, C. (2014). Licensing and co-branding: Increasing brand visibility in new market segments. Key Notes. Retrieved from http://pregelkeyaccounts.com/keynotes/index.php/2014/04/licensing-and-co-branding-increasing-brand-visibility-in-new-market-segments/
ESPN. (2016). Mick Fanning [Television series episode]. E:60. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jU7YYwupMA
Feloni, R. (2014). How Lego came back from the brink of bankruptcy. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/how-lego-made-a-huge-turnaround-2014-2
Govindarajan, V., & Faber, H. (2016). How companies escape the traps of the past. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/04/how-companies-escape-the-traps-of-the-past
Nazario, M. (2015). The 13 most impressive brand comebacks of all time. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/most-impressive-brand-comebacks-2015-10
PowerReviews. (2014). The power of reviews: How ratings and reviews influence the buying behavior of the modern consumer. Retrieved from http://www.powerreviews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/13185402/ThePowerofReviews-Report.pdf
Smart licensing lifts Lego to the top of the toy world. (2014). Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review. Retrieved from http://mttlr.org/2014/03/05/smart-licensing-lifts-lego-to-the-top-of-the-toy-world/
The biggest business comebacks of the past 20 years. (2015). Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/3042431/meme/the-biggest-business-comebacks-of-the-past-20-years


Rubens Pessanha Filho is the Director of Market Research and Insights at  Council of Better Business Bureaus. He has more than 20 years of global experience in the interfaces of marketing, strategic organizational development, and market research and insights. He is passionate about seeing connections in data and telling stories from it.