• Transform magazine
  • May 26, 2024


Smarter recession marketing takes an investment in brand and creative

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Greg Gibson, partner and CCO of independent creative agency Grizzly, explores why leading with your brand can be the difference between surviving and thriving during an economic downturn.

Just as businesses have begun to emerge from the economic uncertainty created by Covid-19, they’re now facing spiraling inflation and the prospect of an impending recession. Nowhere is this sense of economic angst more noticeable than in big tech, where companies have been rocked by slow growth, hiring freezes, and a series of layoffs. Brands like Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Tesla have seen their combined market caps decrease by approximately $3tn over this past year, CNBC reports. 

With marketing spend under review as brands navigate turbulent times ahead, budgets may shift towards on demand marketing in an attempt to attribute ROI more effectively. Brands will need to continue to drive demand, but I firmly believe that investing in brand marketing and smart creative is a more effective, sustainable tactic through a recession, and there are plenty of examples of why these strategies work.

For established brands, focusing efforts toward brand awareness with great creative is critical to stay top of mind, to differentiate, and to stay innovative throughout the challenges of recession.  During the Great Recession, Lego chose to go global, investing in brand awareness in Europe and Asia while the US economy was in crisis. By doing so it reached an all-time high in profitability during a time when its primary market was in dire straits.

For startups, a recession presents a perfect opportunity to invest in growth and displace legacy brands who slow their spending. Airbnb understood this and kickstarted its transformation from couchsurfing dream to household name around 2008. Ingenious branding, coupled with opportunism and post-recession agility, gave Airbnb a valuation of $2.5bn by 2012. Airbnb continues to show it understands the value of brand going into the upcoming recession by prioritizing brand marketing over search and performance spend. This strategy is already working, lowering overall spend for Airbnb, while increasing effectiveness.

While not every business is going to have an Airbnb-style story, there are tactical lessons brands can learn and use to make their marketing work harder for them during an economic downturn. Here are five proven ways your brand can outlast and out-compete through a recession.

To reach and resonate with people, understanding your audience will be critical during any period of economic uncertainty. When people are less likely to spend money, they’re more likely to spend it with brands that they trust and believe in. That means getting smart about audience needs, behaviors, and media habits so your brand shows up in the right places and your creative punches through the noise.

To stay relevant, connect your purpose to audience needs and beliefs. Who you are and why you exist is about the problem you solve for the people and how the world is better with your brand in it. This is why the Nike brand is more recession-proof than others. Create marketing that makes this connection for consumers. Brands can leverage anthemic storytelling, endorsements, or UGC, but during a recession, there are more cost-effective ways to reach people. Think YouTube or TikTok over Super Bowl.

During tough times, meaningful experiences matter more than ever. There’s never been a better time to roll out that new customer experience strategy or a creative way to go above and beyond. Just make sure to balance with consistency. One poor experience could be the difference between people staying with you for the long haul or voting with their wallet elsewhere. 

Engage customers by telling repeatable, human stories that start with human insights and show you understand culture. Lean into an emotional hook. The new brand campaign by British Airways is a great example. In this case, BA has been able to shift the narrative from a brand in trouble to a brand that understands its customer by tapping into why people fly. 

Periods of recessions also present an opportune moment for brands to invest in innovation or new markets to out-compete and open new markets. Mailchimp grew through the 2008 recession by launching a freemium model, leapfrogging its competitors and expanding its audience. 

Your brand can be your competitive advantage when everything else seems uncertain. Committing to strengthening your relationship with customers and employees now will ensure you survive the impending recession and thrive long after it has passed.