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The secret to surviving a recession? Keep advertising – here’s how

by Joseph Gualtiere

August 5, 2022

One popular disinfectant brand came under scrutiny in September of 2020 for launching ads that glorified a return to the office — at a time when many people were still quarantining or enjoying work-from-home life.

Of course, their marketing team was under a lot of pressure to keep sales up during an economic downturn. But a misguided marketing strategy ended up costing them.

Marketing during a recession is a delicate balancing act: You have to drive revenue and meet your bottom line, but you also want to be sensitive to the current reality.

It may seem tempting to opt out of advertising altogether during tough economic times. But this would be a grave mistake — especially for businesses that sell critical goods like food, medicine and clothing. Brands in these industries have a major opportunity to continue marketing their essential services during a recession.

During the 2008 recession, for example, UK consumer goods company Reckitt increased ad spend for high-performing brands, growing its company revenue by 8% and profits by 14%. McGraw Hill also found that companies who continued to advertise during a recession in the 1980s saw 256% higher sales than competitors post-recession, while those who didn't advertise saw a 0% market share increase and a meager 18% rise in sales.

As Fran Cowan, vice-president of marketing for the International Advertising Association told The Drum in 2020, “Companies that maintain some marketing efforts will most likely reap the rewards and rebound quicker. Luckily in the UK, we have an industry that pulls together during these times."

With a new recession potentially on the horizon, marketers need to nail the balancing act: build effective campaigns that convert customers. These recession marketing tips will guide you.

1.) Learn from advertisers who’ve done it right

Take a lesson from brands that have already launched successful recession marketing campaigns, like these from the Covid-19 recession of 2020:

  • eBay: Stronger as One. E-commerce marketplace eBay created a campaign to highlight how thousands of small businesses across the UK were persevering and contributing to the economy, putting the spotlight on hard-working partners and vendors to uplift and inspire.
  • Save A Lot: We’re Here For You. Discount grocery store Save A Lot doubled down on its founding mission to provide people with affordable and quality essentials, sharing how they could make a practical, immediate difference in hard times.
  • Starbucks & Feeding America. Starbucks donated $1.7m to hunger-relief charity Feeding America to help communities in need access food, putting their money where their mouth was and making a financial investment in people’s futures.

It can be tempting to fall back on tried and true creatives in response to budget cuts and uncertainty, but chances are you’ll need to make some updates to your messaging to best meet the needs of your customers in a recession.

2. Choose timely – not tone deaf – messaging

There are a few different ways you can respond to an economic recession with ad messaging. Choose one or more of these strategies to start:

Humanize your brand

Build an emotional connection with your audience. 44% of successful campaigns in a recession take an emotional approach. Nike’s “You Can’t Stop Us” ad went viral for its heartwarming message of inclusiveness and perseverance in difficult times, featuring athletes of different cultures, genders, and abilities.

Support communities in need

If your company has the resources to help out during times of economic distress, share how your brand is helping through social media campaigns and website articles. In 2020, Coca-Cola published content about their donation of 1.5 million drinks to support front line workers, food banks, and NHS Nightingale Hospitals across the country.

Focus on the essentials

Campaigns that sell "the high life" or promote luxury items won’t work. Be sure to focus on the value, durability, and utility of your products and services. On World Land Rover Day, the car manufacturer released an ad showing how its vehicles can be used to transport lifesaving medical supplies to NHS hospitals throughout the UK.

3. Take new customer behaviors into account

Audience segments may look different during a recession as consumer behaviors and values change. According to Harvard Business Review, four consumer segments emerge during recessions, which we have summarized as:

Customers who stop clicking

They aren’t looking to purchase again any time soon. It's best not to target these customers in order to avoid frustrating them.

Customers who click but don't purchase

They're waiting to see how the economy changes and recovers. You can reach this group with awareness ads that emphasize your brand values. Take JBM Recruitment for example. Their LinkedIn tagline, “We know people” was used in short “40 Minute Mentor” videos from inspiring leaders, helping people navigate a changing work world and fluctuating economy.

Customers who click and might purchase

They’re financially stable yet cautious about their spending. Reach them with consideration ads that build your credibility and reputation. Coors’ “Could Use a Beer” campaign promoted togetherness and invited people to virtually send a free round of beer to their friends.

Customers who click and purchase as usual

They’re continuing to live in the moment. You can reach them with performance marketing that includes deals, sales, and calls to action. Burger King’s “Pay Cut Whopper” campaign helped customers in the UAE experiencing pay cuts save money on their next fast food purchase.

4. Build connections with emotional storytelling

Consumers are less likely to be focused on flashy products and more likely to respond to impactful stories of human struggles and success during a recession. Your marketing campaigns should:

  • Highlight real people associated with your brand like executives, staff members, clients, and community partners making a difference.
  • Feature familiar faces like other industry thought leaders, influencers, and ambassadors who can help build brand credibility.
  • Celebrate community by showcasing customers who've had positive and even life-changing experiences with your brand.

Ahead of the 2008 recession, for example, Fairy dishwashing liquid launched its “Enduring care" campaign to show how the brand provides value to its customers. As a result, brand perception and market share dramatically increased.

Get in front of those audience segments with dynamic image and video ads that feature real people. According to Taboola Trends, ad images that include close-up shots of people are currently driving higher click-through rates among UK audiences compared to ad images without people or with people in the distance.

Recessions don’t mean you can’t drive revenue

Recession marketing might seem daunting, but it can pay off in immediate customer engagement and long-term market share. Advertising during an economic downturn opens up valuable opportunities to humanize your brand and emotionally connect with your audience.

You just need the right strategies and tools to make it happen.

  • Take a lesson from successful recession marketing campaigns of the past.
  • Use messaging that humanizes your brand and matches the times.
  • Target audiences based on new customer behaviors.
  • Tell impactful stories that feature real people and community members.

With these tips, you can continue to reach audiences during tough times and prepare your customers and your brand for a brighter future ahead.

Tags

recession
Native Advertising
native