Director, Integrated Marketing
It’s no longer business as usual. Or is it? The early days of the COVID-19 2020 lockdown that started in March delivered an adrenaline rush to marketing departments. Decisions were made at record pace as businesses worked tirelessly to establish real ways to maintain connections with consumers and the businesses they support. Do nothing and suffer the consequences of lose share of voice. Do too much and risk seeming opportunistic. There were hits and misses and because advertising is often personal – which is which is often subjective however, one thing is true. In challenging times and economic downturns businesses need to let their target audiences know what they’re doing.
According to Marketing Week, “spend on marketing as a percentage of US companies’ overall budgets rose to 12.6% in May, up from 11.3% in January 2020 and the highest it has been in the 10 years. The previous high was in January 2016, when it reached 12.1%.
Consumers have high expectations of brands in a time of crisis, be it a pandemic or a recession. Thankfully, there are some tried-and-true ways that brands can advertise, and thrive, during a recession.
It’s hard to stay calm when a recession hits, but brands that continue advertising during a recession will fair best. When a recession hits, the best course of action is protecting your investment. Brands that safeguard the hard-earned equity won in their advertising and brand campaigns will preserve the foundation they need to grow and rebound. If companies cut deeply into advertising and communications budgets in a down period, the cost to regain share of voice in the market once the economy turns may cost four or five times as much as the cuts saved.
Although a large majority—74%—of U.S. business economists appear to believe a slowing economy will tip into recession in 2021, reacting fast and slashing advertising budgets can make things worse. Resist.
What is a Recession?
The National Bureau of Economic Research, a private organization of economists that formally defines recession, say they occur when there is: “a significant decline in economic activity” lasting for more than “a few months,” reflected in a range of economic data including GDP, incomes and jobs.
In every recession, marketers find themselves in poorly charted waters because no two downturns are exactly alike. Of course, companies need to control spending but failing to support brands can undermine revenue goals. The better strategy is to go all in to understand customer needs and respond accordingly with tailored messaging across channels. The way to do this is through data, then layering these insights with the human element to get a deeper understanding of how target audiences will respond.
A recent MNI 24/7 research study surveying business leaders in the summer of 2019 indicated that respondents appreciate useful and relevant advertising that appears in the media they use.
- 80% agreed with the statement “I will seek more information about an ad that I find interesting.”
- 79% agreed that “advertising helps me learn about new products.”
- 74% of those surveyed “appreciate advertising that is relevant to me.”
For example, will your consumers pull in all discretionary spending? Will they forgo luxuries like travel and a new car? If they decide to spend, how will they decide when and where to do so? Who will be their influencers? Taking time to learn about targets will inform how best to respond and meet their needs. This is how brands will gain trust and loyalty.
AdAge recently published an article titled, “What Marketers and Agencies Might Expect If a Recession Happens.” One section reads: “If things are bad now, just wait. Agencies could lose 3% to 30 percent of their revenue during a recession as brands shift to more project work,” says Keith Johnston, global CMO practice leader at Forrester. “The needs of the clients shift drastically in a recession,” he says. “There’s already a call for more efficient, measurable media. There’s going to be a greater squeeze on that.”
How Does Consumer Behavior Change During a Recession?
When market indicators start sending up warning flares, chances are people are going to start running for cover. This is especially true for those who have been hit before and saw earnings and retirement accounts take a significant hit, or, in the case of Gen Z, watched their parents endure the fiscal implications of the last recession. Been there, done that—no one wants to be burned once, much less twice, by a recession. The wave of bad economic news is eroding confidence and likely buying power, driving consumers to adjust their behavior.
According to the Harvard Business Review, regardless of which group consumers belong to, they prioritize consumption by sorting products and services into four categories:
- Essentials are necessary for survival or perceived as central to well-being.
- Treats are indulgences whose immediate purchase is considered justifiable.
- Postponables are needed or desired items whose purchase can be reasonably put off.
- Expendables are perceived as unnecessary or unjustifiable.
Beyond this, marketers should factor in a psychological overlay to their segmentation strategy. Are targets going to simply hold off on any incremental purchases because they’re worried about rent? Or are they relatively secure, but cautious? According to a study conducted on the effects of going dark (cutting back on marketing and media spend to the extent that it’s nearly non-existent) by ThinkVine, a Cincinnati-based analytics company, it was found that by the end of the year of going dark, firms saw sales drop by 20%.
5 Tips to Maintaining Your Brand in a Recession
1. Tailor brand voice to your target audience.
Value is an important message to build into marketing campaigns during a downturn. Don’t ignore the fact that people are feeling wary—personally and professionally—let them know why your brand provides value but don’t be a Debbie Downer. This is how you’ll maintain consumer loyalty and brand equity and keep the revenue stream flowing. Talk about what consumers will get for their money.
Luxury businesses should take a different approach, appealing more to emotion, and emphasizing the need for some emotional release or comfort. Give permission. And convey the long-term value—for example, a watch is a timeless investment that provides enduring value.
The 2008 recession saw car manufacturers focusing less on big and bold ideas and more on miles per gallon, to appeal to consumers’ frugality. Focusing on prices and temporary discounts can be depressing and risky but promoting a sense of community and a “we’re-in-this-together” approach shows an awareness and sensitivity that earns trust.
2. Rediscover the brand.
A recession can be an opportunity disguised as a problem.
Think about your brand essence. What is that you offer and what makes you different from the others? How can you help people celebrate and contribute? A recession can be an opportunity disguised as a problem. You can position the brand as an ally to consumers in tough times, with product development or sponsorship programs, so the consumer can say your brand is committed to them.
Brands like Honey Baked Ham permit you to celebrate. Its 12 Days of Christmas celebration features in-store offers, prizes, and giveaways, and is a way to gift its consumers. It gives a sense of community, caring, and celebration that is consistent with its brand authenticity.
Reassuring messages that reinforce an emotional connection with brands and demonstrate empathy are vital.
3. Refocus on brand trust.
If sales are declining think of another way to inspire a purchase. The one thing you don’t want to do is penalize consumers by raising prices. Loyalty programs should reward not just big, one-time spenders but also people who purchase small amounts frequently. Use data to send targeted messaging.
Travel destinations may want to target Boomers, for example, and smart advertising can reassure them about the dividends, fiscal and otherwise, they’ll feel from prioritizing quality time together and with their families. Remember that most people have influencers, ranging from friends to grandchildren, so be tactical when deploying messaging. Determine who you’re reaching and craft messaging accordingly.
Some brands may want to raise the profile of the causes they promote. This is certainly a way to further the emotional connection. A Subaru “Share the Love” campaign, for example, has resulted in more than $140 million in donations to national charities—and over 1,170 hometown charities—by asking their clients where they would like to direct a donation.
Continue to Innovate – Apple
In 2003, when the Dow was at historical lows over a 10-year period, Apple continued to invest. When asked why he hadn’t reduced research development spending when others in the industry had experienced a slowdown, Steve Jobs shared, “What has happened in technology over the last few years has been about the downturn, not the future of technology. A lot of companies have chosen to downsize, and maybe that was the right thing for them. We chose a different path. Our belief was that if we kept putting great products in front of [customers], they would continue to open their wallets. And that’s what we’ve done.”
4. Stay balanced. Be smart.
Maintain (or even increase) your marketing spends, but ensure you have the data to back your investment. Be vigilant in your metrics tracking and reporting. Make sure you’re leveraging technology to inform strategies that isolate that single user ID. Give the data the attention it deserves, share insights with the broader team, and stay agile so you can adapt plans to reflect what you’re seeing. From there, brands can make messaging personal.
Keeping a level head and committing to a long-term marketing strategy can help you flourish in the down cycle and be fully prepared to capitalize on the upswing.