8 January 2021

Been there, seen it, done it: Marketing through a recession

By Ben Saunders

I was interested to read last year about the launch of a new advertising agency – Ancient & Modern. It was established by three industry veterans with an average age of 64, and claims to be “the oldest new start-up in advertising history. And the most experienced, for that matter.” That these ‘attention-seeking old farts’ (their words, not mine) have chosen to use age as a key point of difference reminds us that marketing is overwhelmingly a young person’s game. Mark Reed of WPP infamously said as much: “the average age of someone who works at WPP is less than 30 – they don’t hark back to the 1980s, luckily.”

Now you can argue the merits of that one way or the other. To quote the exchange between Q and Bond in Skyfall, “Age is no guarantee of efficiency – and youth is no guarantee of innovation.” But one thing is clear: many marketers are now facing up to the challenges of their first recession. It’s a daunting prospect, but fortunately there’s a bank of knowledge and experience to call upon. Here are five top tips for marketing through a recession, from people who have been there, seen it and done it.

1.Keep on spending (Mark Ritson)

Many marketers will reduce their investment – either through nervousness, or because their budgets have been cut. But the smart ones, according to Mark Ritson, will continue to spend: “Advertising through the recession keeps your brand strong during the downturn, maintains the long-term trajectory of your marketing spend and brand salience, and allows you to enjoy a window of opportunity that will not remain open forever.” Investing through a recession ensures you maintain your share of voice, and even grow it at the expense of your less-smart competitors; turning off the marketing tap feels like a money-saving measure, but it’ll cost you in the longer term.

2.Take the long view (Peter Field)

Les Binet and Peter Field have done a lot over the last decade to redress the balance between the long and the short of it, so it is no surprise that Field recommends keeping a long-term, brand-building focus through the recession. “Do not hit the panic button and withdraw brand advertising, unless short-term survival depends on it. Resist the pressure to switch advertising spend from brand solely to activation – it makes very little sense to do so, even in the short term. Customers, in many cases are not reluctant to buy, they are unable to buy.”

3.Stay customer-centric (Tom Fishburne)

Much has changed over the last year, and what was a compelling proposition at the start of 2020 might not represent such good value now. Tom Fishburne points to universities as a case in point – delivering tuition online but continuing to charge as if for the in-person experience might work for the institution, but it’s a far less attractive prospect for students. “Covid-19 is forcing a re-evaluation of how brands across the board are valued. It resets the playing field. Ultimately the value of any brand is determined not by the team that works on the brand, but by potential consumers of the brand.” Those consumers have generally been patient so far, but their goodwill is not infinite; the onus is on marketers to keep their brand propositions sharp.

4.Beware the bandwagon (Byron Sharp)

Being culturally-relevant is important, but adding another voice to the shouting match isn’t always helpful. The tsunami of me-too advertising unleashed by coronavirus left Byron Sharp unimpressed: “Creativity is thrown out the window. Every ad says exactly the same thing: ‘In these unprecedented times, we're here to help you.’ It's pretty stupid, because the media was absolutely saturated with Covid stuff.” The fundamental purpose of marketing is to drive sales. Advertising that looks like, sounds like and runs alongside everyone else is less likely to achieve that objective than advertising that stands out.

5.Invest in relationships (Richard Beasley)

A marketing function is a network of relationships. Relationships with customers, of course, but also intra- and inter-departmental relationships, relationships with agencies, relationships with suppliers. When times are testing, those relationships become strained; there’s an understandable temptation to pull up the drawbridge.  Richard Beasley urges the opposite. Prioritising people, especially when things are difficult, lays the foundation for a solid and sustainable recovery when things improve.

In Summary

The word ‘unprecedented’ came in for heavy use in 2020. Starting 2021 back in lockdown feels rather more precedented. But this too shall pass, and applying the lessons of Ritson, Field, Fishburne, Sharp and Beasley will help brands emerge in good shape.

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