Tough it out

In a recession you’ve got to keep investing – and find the right tone of voice for addressing your market

Times are tough. This is not a great shock to the system – not much of a ‘hold the front page’ scoop. But it succinctly sums up the sentiment of the market and it is beginning to define how we promote ourselves. In fact, it’s beginning to define how we operate as a business moving forward. Let me explain.

There has to be appropriateness to communication. When someone whispers we whisper back. When we are shouted at, we shout back. The same applies to marketing. Our customers (retailers) are being told by their customers (consumers) that times are tough. They are being told directly through research and indirectly through spending preferences changing. Much has been written already about some of the more interesting changes to consumer spending – the queues outside the cobblers; the increase in demand for pastry and lasagne; consumers looking to make items they already own last longer; and the cuts of meat from a Sunday lunch go further.

As a result, and to ensure that they are promoting themselves appropriately, consumer brands are changing their messaging. This can be seen by a number of the more responsive consumer brands – the banks, the leading retailers – Marks & Spencer, for example, reverting to its heritage as a ‘penny store’ for a few days; and Honda pulling the life car from Formula One.

And so, contextually, it comes as no surprise that our customers are passing on the message that times are tough. We are hearing this directly through our efforts to sit down and listen to our retailers and also indirectly through anecdote and the decline in demand in the market for taking new retail space.

So how do we respond? What is appropriate? When your customers are telling you they want you to reduce your costs and pass the savings on to them by reducing service charges, how do you promote yourself to these customers without the activity coming across as indulgent and unnecessary?

Our competitors are broadly in the same boat and, rather than looking for a solution, many have simply pulled themselves out of the market and stopped promoting themselves altogether.

So the first step towards an appropriate response is to do less. After all, in a room where no one is speaking at all you only need to whisper to be heard. So we are whispering. The next step is to get the messaging right. The market has lost confidence so, in a move similar to that made by M&S, we’re changing the messages from the esoteric to the fundamental. On the much-fabled hierarchy of needs we’ve moved towards the bottom of the pyramid. After all, if your customer wants to buy reassurance sell them expertise and experience.

Like M&S, we’re not in a world where we can sell our product from the point of view of the ‘feeling inside’ any more. Now it’s all about the bottom line and research that proves the business case for taking a new store and underpins every opportunity. We then reinforce this objective evaluation with confirmation of our operational excellence – that we will attract more people to your shop (industry-leading consumer marketing); keep them there for longer (excellent customer service provision); save you money (service charge savings and environmental initiatives that make business more efficient); and be more flexible to your business’ changing needs (lease reform and monthly rents).

So we know what we are going to say and how loudly we are going to say it, but where is design in this? What role has design got to play?

We have a fantastic track record for commissioning design. Beautiful, engaging, effective design has helped position us as the preeminent property company in Europe. But when times are tough and your customers are telling you so, is it still appropriate to invest in design, as we did when times were more buoyant?

I would argue that you need to invest more than ever. After all, our messaging has become more complicated and it is going to take some brilliant design to get the balance right – to satisfy our audience as well as our commercial needs and ensure that our marketing materials continue to be effective within the context of an audience that might resent being ‘marketed’ to.

Our design roster is looking for the balance, finding the appropriate way to communicate, striving for the creative solution that will turn a tough market into an opportunity to position us not only as the company that was there when times were good – but is there now that times are tough.

We believe that design can do this. Design over everything else can ensure that we are left in the best possible position to reap the rewards from a recovery in the market. After all, while times remain tough, the situation won’t last forever.

I believe that the companies that have got the messaging right and continued to promote themselves appropriately (many aren’t, and are still using last year’s creative and looking a little crass) will be in the best place to capitalise when the market comes back.

Commissioning design for retail property marketing:


  • Challenge conventional wisdom. There are many established norms in property marketing – challenge them. In almost all cases, the established ways of doing things have come about through habit rather than by design. A downturn is the time to propose a better way of doing things
  • Remember that property is a people business. To increase effectiveness, weave quality consumer research into your messaging. After all is said and done, a retailer simply wants to know who and how many people are likely to visit their shop and what they have to spend
  • Research your effect. In the past, property marketing has not always had the rigour it should have had. This has meant that within some portions of the UK property market, marketing has a low perceived value, and some of us are trying to change this


  • Use the hackneyed, obvious solutions. Monopoly boards are most definitely last decade (or possibly the decade before last)
  • Chop and change design consultancies. Property is a long-term business, and so should your relationships be with your design consultancy partners. A thorough understanding of your business and a campaign approach will make your design more effective
  • Dismiss the views of your customers. They know what they want to buy, even if they can’t envisage it yet. Find out the problems, challenges and opportunities they are faced with and think about how your building will address some or all of these dynamics. Finesse your marketing message and design solution to fit

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