Marketing in Challenging Times - How to Survive an Economic Downturn

by Vanessa Davidson

Economic downturn Infographic-1The world around is changing due to COVID-19 for businesses and individuals, alike. Many are having to figure out how to do more with less. Some are trying to figure this all out while working away from their office and, potentially, helping kids navigate virtual learning. Regardless of the circumstances, businesses and organizations are having to harness every creative idea and pivot as nimbly as they can to survive. As a company and brand, there are many and ever-changing challenges that make it difficult to walk a successful path.

Recessions and economic downturns have been a part of great times of change in our history, with many lessons learned along the way. While no two economic downturns have ever been exactly alike, there are two things we have learned from the past that are still relevant to us now. First, the gut reaction is to reduce spending to save the bottom line. Second, and completely contradictory to the first point, we know that cutting too much can have negative effects on our businesses. 

A McGraw-Hill Research analysis of 600 companies from 1980 to 1985 “found that the businesses that chose to maintain or raise their marketing expenditures during the 1981 and 1982 recession had significantly higher sales after the economy recovered.” And the “companies that marketed aggressively during the recession had 256% higher sales than those that did not continue to market.”

Advertising pioneer Bruce Barton famously proclaimed, “When times are good, you should advertise. When times are bad, you must advertise.” His statement is confirmed with a 2004 study by the Association of American Advertising Agencies of nearly 2,700 firms across three industries – consumer, industrial and service – which found that increased advertising in an economic downturn or recession has greater benefits than increased spending in a period of economic expansion.

During difficult times, it is our resilience and ability to adapt to the best of our ability that gets us through. In economic downturns, there is always potential for opportunities and growth, even if it looks different than what we knew before. Small businesses and challenger brands can utilize this opportunity to offer the value that their customer needs more than ever. This doesn’t have to translate to lower prices. This means adjusting what you offer and how you provide it in order to meet consumer needs where they are now.  

Consumer confidence understandably declines during times like this, fueled by negative news headlines, employment concerns and now, the fear over the safety of their loved ones. Yet, it is this dip in confidence that further perpetuates a recession, with less disposable income circulating than before and being reallocated to different areas. 

According to one study, 56% of Americans are either maintaining or increasing their spending on takeout and meal delivery right now. Smart dining brands have reacted with offers like “zero-touch pizza delivery” and curbside pickup. This can be seen on the local level too, as everything from home services companies to retailers have evolved their offerings, as well as how they deliver them. 

People seek value based on their current needs. It is all about adjusting the message and using the right marketing mix to let current and potential customers know what you offer. Getting in front of your audience in a way that keeps you top of mind doesn’t have to be an all or nothing endeavor. Any industry, any business and any budget can find a way to make a needed impact. 

According to a study found in the U.S. Small Business Administration, website signage is the least expensive, yet most effective form of advertising available. In this pandemic where we are spending less time out and about, and only doing so with caution, signs and graphics also serve as an invaluable communication tool. Not only do they promote social distancing by keeping customers informed, they also direct the public safely around your place of business without the need for close, face-to-face interaction.

What we are all experiencing right now is difficult and brings our businesses into new territory. Find ways to increase your share of voice now in order to help increase your share of the market later.