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4 things retailers can do to recession-proof their comms

By Beth Freedman | Chief executive

September 23, 2022 | 8 min read

The chancellor’s mini-budget announcement has sent the pound plummeting, a worrying sign after the Bank of England confirmed Britain’s economy is now in recession. So, how can retailers recession-proof their comms?

Recession

How to do comms in this recession

Unlike the recent pandemic, the UK’s cost of living crisis has not arrived suddenly. And we can’t predict the exact extent of the impact it will have, although the Bank of England predicts it will last more than a year, and inflation will rise above 13%.

We can already see people pulling back on discretionary spend, saving less, relying more on credit to buy the things they need, buying more own-label products and scrutinizing every purchase they make.

With this as a backdrop, it is our job as marketers to continue building our brands. The risk is that we get distracted by the situation and lose our focus.

We have seen many brands already taking action – some have shifted to value messaging, others to loyalty propositions – but the most successful brands will accurately read the situation and their audience’s changing needs, and carefully adapt their comms.

The recent pandemic has been illustrative of this. Many brands pumped out indistinctive comms that departed from their usual brand codes and long-term vision (demonstrated well here).

Other brands did a better job at reading their audience’s needs in the short term, while supporting their existing brand cues and proof points. Some did that with humor, others offered genuine support and information (well done Heinz), and others with functional benefits for their audience.

Here are four things that retailers can do to continue growing their brands during the uncertain times ahead:

1. Acknowledge the economic climate, but focus on YOUR brand’s benefits

The population is weary of living in a state of perpetual crisis, and economic downturn will only compound that feeling. They do not need or want brands intensifying that with gloomy advertising – only one in four UK adults agree that it is appropriate for brands to talk about the cost of living in their advertising (Reach Solutions).

We’re in the business of selling optimism, so instead of using budgets to commiserate, we should stay focused on achieving brand objectives.

Tesco Mobile’s ‘Spend Less With Us’ campaign is a fantastic recent example. It clearly acknowledges the rising cost of living, but does so with levity, storytelling and a clear value proposition for the viewer that will do a job for both Tesco’s master brand and its mobile offering. In other words, it’s much more than just a ‘recession ad.’

2. If you have a strong loyalty proposition, invest in it

Downturns cause many people – especially those most affected – to spend more time researching their purchases and shopping around for value.

Now is the time for brands with compelling loyalty propositions to shout about them. Invest in making them attractive and salient to make the most of the intel that you have. It is a valuable acquisition and retention proof point that can set you apart from the competition.

McDonald’s has launched its new Rewards program with immense marketing support, including an emotive film ‘Coming Home’ and a ‘Rewards Squad’ PR campaign, which has toured the UK. It is a strong proposition and the investment has gone a long way in making it both attractive and salient.

3. Make every asset on your plan work as hard as possible

In an ideal world your communications plan will be plentiful, with many different assets performing different roles throughout the customer journey. In the real world, that is not always feasible – especially when budgets may be squeezed.

To make the most of your investment, scrutinize every asset on your plan and consider how it might perform a bigger job. Also – be imaginative with your data. Merkle’s recent work with Michael Kors is a great example of this, using first- and third-party data in creative ways to rank 50 markets into three tiers of revenue opportunity, thus helping them prioritize markets and ‘types’ of performance plan to unlock the greatest growth.

Subway has made the most of a digital out-of-home (DOOH) site by turning it into an interactive experience where passers-by can build their dream sub on-screen via an animated QR code. It collects data from people who scan and engage with the ad, and it is an innovative, engaging piece of brand advertising for those that simply walk by.

It is much more than a traditional OOH ad – and likely an expensive build – but simpler options exist. Brands can reference apps in their assets or make assets shoppable to shortcut the purchase journey. The challenge here is to be ambitious, without cluttering your assets to the extent they become a dog’s breakfast.

4. Double down on the stuff that works for your brand

A recession does not necessitate that you throw your existing strategy or tactics out the window. Instead, lean on the actions that have driven results in the past and adapt them to the current context.

For example, sponsorship can be hugely effective, and brands that support much-loved content – and add value to the content – will resonate with audiences in the context of the current climate.

Sainsbury’s partnership with the Table Manners podcast for its premium own-label brand ‘Taste the Difference’ is proof of this. It’s a long-term partnership that allows Sainsbury’s to reach foodies in an intimate environment, and the brand’s support has enabled the podcast to record more episodes and host events. And in an economic slump, it allows Sainsbury’s to reach an audience that will still be willing to pay extra for premium foods – unlike, say, the audiences they might find from a broadcast channel.

Lastly, remain focused on the long-term

Retailers should strive to keep their focus firmly on the long-term growth of their brand, not just on the year ahead. At Dentsu X our philosophy is ‘Experience Beyond Exposure,’ and with many budgets under threat, it will be as crucial as ever to create as much value as possible on clients’ media plans.

Now is the time to send agencies down the rabbit hole – we have the expertise and data to help clients understand their audience and their evolving needs. Doing this will lead to compelling insights upon which brands can shape a successful communications strategy that is both recession-proof and effective in the long term.

Beth Freedman is the UK chief executive at Dentsu X.

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