02 January 2009

Recession Marketing

It was lurking overhead throughout the Christmas festivities. You could see it in the barely concealed looks of fear on the faces of chief financial officers and central bankers profiled in the FT. It was the subtext underpinning almost every word of Gordon Brown's New Year outlook. Whisper it quietly: recession is on the way.

As a marketer, allow yourself an extra shiver of trepidation, because we suffer more than most when the economy slows. We are the guillemots in the oil-slick of recession - the first to suffer and the ones hit hardest. Marketing spend will decline, agencies will close, and a legion of marketers will leave their roles with 'no job to go to'.

The arrival of recession means it is time for brand managers to change tactics and put away the big white book entitled Brand Building Justifications During Growth, while blowing the cobwebs off the smaller, leaner black book, last used in 1990, entitled Why Brand Equity is Your Best Defense in a Recession.

For a generation of marketers, this will be the first time they have resorted to this very different approach. But follow the greyer heads in the office and you will be fine. Learn to talk about the power of strong brands in the face of declining customer spend. Explore the topic of brand loyalty, not in terms of growing share of wallet, but retaining it in the face of lower-priced value alternatives. Most importantly, remember to point out that the brands that continue to build their equity in the recession will be best placed to enjoy the fruits of their labor when the economy inevitably returns to growth.

Not everyone automatically loses out in a recession. As my boss would remind me, luxury brands will survive remarkably well. The same is true at the other end of the high street where value players who focus on discount sales will also prosper. The real problem comes in the middle. If you are not in the top or bottom tier, the recession is likely to deal you a particularly difficult hand in 2008.

The big supermarkets are recession-proof these days, thanks to own-label strategies that offer everything from value brands, to the cheaper-than-manufacturer brand alternatives and top-priced occasional indulgences from their finest lines.

We can only guess at which of the big brands that have steadily dropped in equity and appeal over the past few years will now be exposed, as the bitter wind of recession blows down the high street. The same will be true for senior marketers; suddenly some very big marketing salaries will be questioned and, in many cases, found lacking. Expect some famous heads to roll in 2008.

So Happy bloody New Year. Keep your head down, your finger in as many pies as possible, and make sure every third bullet point says ROI.