Marketing in a Downturn

This is one of those recurring theme stories that pop up every time the economy takes a dip. “Don’t stop marketing!” the marketing pundits scream, as if saying it over and over again will actually make it so.

Sure, it’s common sense that you need to continue to entice customers to buy your product or service at a time when they are less likely to do so. But the reality is, when sales are tanking, something has to give, and usually it’s the marketing budget. Why? Because marketers have the most trouble justifying their investments. (So, to a lesser extent, does IT, which is why you see similar headlines proclaiming, “Don’t stop investing in IT during a downturn!” Same message, different audience.) They’re not equipped to say, “If we stop advertising, our sales will drop X%.” By speaking in generalities, marketing becomes vulnerable to any belt-tightening effots to offset falling revenues.

Some confuse marketing with innovation. Even Ad Age, which should know better, fell into this trap with a lamebrain story on innovations spawned during economic downturns:

Retail sales have gone from slow to declining, and the consumer-spending binge that propped up the U.S. economy for years may not return for a long time.

In short, it’s a great time to be in marketing.

Previous recessions have provided big opportunities — spawning the brand-management system, soap operas, modern cable networks, airline loyalty programs, the IBM personal computer, the iPod, Crest Whitestrips, Axe body spray and — for better or worse — fast-food value menus.

It’s safe to say that the success of most of those items had more to do with the quality and uniqueness of the products than the marketing campaigns around them. I guess the takeaway is that you still want to take risks during a downturn – but the bigger point is that you have to be operating from some baseline of reality. That’s where the real marketing innovation needs to occur; if you can’t start to draw a straight line from your marketing initiatives to some economic benefit for your company, you’ll never gain enough cache to protect your budgets when times get tough. Of course, you can always fall back on sending out more coupons.



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