Don’t panic: 6 steps to creating a recession-proof marketing strategy

7 September 2022

Alex Young, Marketing/Beat

The word recession is enough to strike fear into the heart of anyone in a society facing financial crisis, from individual households and small businesses right through to global brands.

Managing director of brand and social impact agency We Are Futures Alex Young explains why marketeers need to ensure that every penny of their marketing budget is working as hard as possible over the coming months.


“Those of us who have lived through one or more recessions have an insight into the various ways it will impact our lives so will know something of what’s ahead, while for younger people who have not yet been directly affected by recession there will be a significant degree of nervous anticipation.

Add into the mix that the circumstances around each recession are different – this one comes hot on the heels of the pandemic, post-Brexit and in a climate of increased care about an organisation’s social purpose and values.

The upshot of this is any brand undertaking marketing and advertising must be careful to adapt its messaging and behaviour accordingly – all while bearing in mind that, whether it’s someone’s first or fourth recession, a sense of fear and uncertainty will prevail.

At this stage in any crisis that affects public spending – be it a recession or a global virus – the advertising industry braces itself for both short- and long-term behaviour change. If history is anything to go by, the old adage applies every time: ‘When times are good you should advertise, when times are bad you must advertise’. But it is never as simple as that.

Few businesses will go through the recession without any impact on their bottom line, so ensuring every penny of the marketing budget is working as hard as possible should be every CMO’s priority. To that end, now is the time that consumer-facing organisations should be considering exactly what they want to say – and how – over the coming months.

Switch the focus

First and foremost, a recession is not the time to be going hard on shifting product – and that has never been truer than in 2022, when the cost-of-living crisis means people’s disposable income is under greater pressure than ever before.

Ploughing spend into the marketing of non-essential goods makes little sense, and – depending on your stance – there is also arguably a moral obligation on businesses not to continue trying to shift goods to an audience which has little cash to spare.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a voice. Instead of marketing physical products, promote services. Add value in other ways. Use your expertise to make a positive difference to people’s experience of the current situation.

Remain front of mind

Two things to avoid are business as usual with no change in content, or a complete shut down and radio silence. Instead, change tack and see how you make an actual positive difference in people’s lives at a time when they need it the most.

How can you actively support young people, families and communities? Those actions will be far more powerful and remembered by your audience as they provide clear tangible benefits beyond standard advertising.

Education, education, education

Effective financial advice, tips on how to save energy, information around lifestyle changes that will result in tangible benefits or even the unpicking and explanation of complex financial issues are all alternative narratives for businesses at this time.

If nothing else, acknowledging that times are hard and that, as a business, you are sensitive to that, will go a long way.

Companies that can offer help, information and reassurance will create a subtle but important emotional connection. By adding value of a different kind, marketeers can reposition the role of their business in consumers’ lives.

Come at it from every angle

Instead of thinking ‘how can I get clients to spend’, put yourself in the shoes of the end-customer. Take time to replace your advertising hat with a consumer one and find a voice that strikes the right tone.

Implicitly understanding the needs of the public in a time of uncertainty will be what sets you apart from less considerate competitors. What actions can you take to make a positive impact in their lives? How can you be a friend rather than existing simply to encourage them to spend money they don’t have?

Expect scrutiny

No organisation’s popularity will plunge faster than one which is insensitive to the public mood.

Big bonuses going to senior management, windfalls for shareholders and anything that costs the taxpayer a penny are all a huge no-go at times like this. But so too is the behaviour that is less official but equally insensitive – extravagant Christmas parties, crass social media comments and behaviour that goes against the company’s external messaging.

The public – and young people in particular – want to throw their support behind a company whose ideals match theirs. They want to see organisations living their values, proving they go beneath the surface and beyond snappy straplines and marketing blurb.

Prepare for an uphill battle

Whether you are a CMO or an agency client lead, bear in mind this approach might not be the easiest sell to the next person up the chain of command. It is natural for those answerable to the shareholders to be nervous about the next steps to take once the public start to tighten their purse strings.

Marketeers must remain confident that the value of switching from outright advertising to a more public service approach will show itself, but it will be your job to show that success may not come simply in the form of clicks and conversions.

You will almost certainly find you are playing the long game, but hold your nerve and you will be rewarded.

The magic solution

The truth is, there is no magic solution here – the next 12 months or more will be difficult for everyone both personally and professionally. But there are some key actions marketeers can take today to come out of this crisis as strong as possible.

  • Redirect budget to personal touchpoints and actions. Making more of a tangible impact which will be key to surviving the storm.
  • Look at what your brand can offer that will help education, reassure or add value to people’s lives – be a guiding light that walks beside them through the tough times.
  • Check your tone in every piece of external and internal communications – be sensitive to the stresses and strains on people’s everyday lives and ensure you are speaking their language.
  • Demonstrate authenticity by joining up the way you speak and the way you behave as a business.

Remember this is not a short-term sticking plaster. Effort applied now will pay dividends when the storm has passed and the spending power returns.

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