There is now a well-accepted mantra in marketing circles that it is a mistake to cut back on marketing investment during a recession, and that in the long term those who hold their nerve and continue to spend benefit in terms of market share. A great deal of data relating to previous recessions exists to prove this – much of it on levels of advertising spend. The same theory is put forward in support of investment in R&D and innovation.
This continues to be the official line from many major brand-owners, but the reality is likely to be rather different, with cutbacks already evident. It therefore becomes even more essential to focus less on the absolute level of spend, and more on whether money is being spent on the right things. We are seeing a major shift in advertising spend, away from traditional above-the-line channels into a variety of digital channels – a trend that the current situation is accelerating.
Now is the time to put in place a more holistic and consistent approach to integrated brand communications, driven by a clear idea and united by a coherent approach to brand expression across multiple channels. This will improve the efficiency of communications. Many companies are moving towards this – with a range of different models – but this now becomes an urgent ‘must do’ rather than a long-term ideal. In many cases, brand consultancies are actively involved in helping to shape these brand ideas and communication platforms already, but they now need a better understanding of the rapidly evolving media landscape to ensure that ideas and expression styles can work in a much wider range of channels.
What about the brand itself? In tougher times, it is even more important to ensure that the insights driving the brand are still true, and that the proposition is absolutely clear, relevant, differentiated and worth paying for. The insights behind the brand should be based on the fundamental truths that drive enduring needs: however, they may need to be revisited as consumer priorities, behaviour or attitudes may be changing unexpectedly. The current economic downturn could easily lead to some profound and lasting shifts in consumer behaviour, expectations and values: the likelihood is that this won’t simply be a blip, after which everything will go back to normal.
So, understanding early what is going on in consumers’ minds will be essential to ensure that the brand can be successful in both the immediate and longer term. There will have to be a strong, compelling reason for customers to buy the brand. Is it really obvious what makes it unique? Is the brand simple to buy, or complicated? Does the architecture lead to additional complexity and cost in communication – and to consumer confusion – or is it clear and easy to navigate? Getting the fundamentals of the brand right must be a priority. If companies are holding back from ad expenditure for a while, it makes sense to spend much more modest amounts to ensure they have all the brand essentials absolutely clear.
If it is becoming received wisdom that maintaining investment in marketing is essential during a recession, this also applies to innovation. But, again, the reality appears to be diverging from the rhetoric. Many companies are retreating from innovation plans because of the typical cost of such programmes and the long lead times. And, again, the issue may now be more about improving the quality and focus of innovation, rather than trying to maintain absolute spend levels.
At times of significant change there will be new needs to address, and new expectations of brands – and therefore, if anything, more real opportunities for innovation. Radical or disruptive innovation is the new aspiration – and probably the right concept for times like these. New offers that can deliver on apparently conflicting benefits – like ‘better quality as well as more sustainable’, healthier as well as cheaper’, ‘easier to use as well as improved performance’ – will have the pulling power to attract consumers who are more careful with their spending. Whole new sectors will emerge in the confusion.
But ‘radical innovation’ can sound pretty scary – maybe OK for Apple, but not for every company. But it should be. Innovation need not always involve large budgets, new technologies and long timescales. The brand is the best starting point – how could the brand best deliver something new that anticipates where consumers are going? Acute insights into consumer attitudes and behaviour within a broader understanding of the main drivers of change in society are the starting point for idea generation. Users can be brought into the process during concept development to short-circuit things. And design and communication skills can project a final concept long before a product is manufactured or a service infrastructure secured.
Marketing your way out of recession is not just about how much money you spend on advertising. It’s about getting the fundamentals of the brand right, having a strong idea that drives integrated communications and focusing on significant innovation that will help keep the brand relevant in the future.
Dorothy Mackenzie is chairman of Dragon