If you’ve never operated your business during a recession, the news stories you’re reading and trends you’re seeing may have you extremely concerned … maybe even terrified. As someone who’s old enough to have helped clients endure several economic setbacks, the best advice I can offer when it comes to marketing is to stay the course.
Marketing-related companies like mine are bellwethers of how business owners and managers feel about their economic prospects. We usually start to notice their anxiety long before the media pays attention.
The savvy ones behave like smart investors, looking beyond the gyrations of the economy and confidently remaining laser-focused on their long-term strategies.
The rest panic. They start to go quiet, scaling back projects and slashing budgets in anticipation of an expected downturn in revenue. I get the emails and phone calls letting me know they’re convinced the worst is about to happen, and I’ll have to factor their dread into my own revenue forecasts. Slashing the marketing budget is an easy call, because it usually doesn’t involve painful steps like reducing headcount. Besides, who knows if any of that marketing stuff actually works, right?
But something funny happens while the nervous crowd is sitting there waiting for the storm to pass. Their confident competitors aren’t pulling back. They’re not standing still. Instead, they’re maintaining steady visibility in the marketplace. Some are even using the downturn as an opportunity to develop better ways to do whatever it is they do.
And, once the economy makes its inevitable recovery, those competitors are miles ahead of their more timid counterparts. They’re already performing at full speed while the cautious crowd is desperately trying to ramp back up.
Ever hear of Hewlett-Packard or Texas Instruments? Both were among the top performers in the transition to digital technology … and as Shawn Achor notes in his excellent book, The Happiness Advantage, both opened their doors in the depths of the Great Depression. (If you haven’t read the book or seen his TED talk, do it soon. You’ll thank me.)
Achor also reaches back to quote a 1958 Time article: “For every company that slims down its operation, another discovers new ways of doing things that should have been in effect for years but were overlooked during the boom.” Or, as he puts it, “Economic adversity forces companies to find creative ways to cut costs and inspires managers to get back in touch with the employees and operations on the ground floor.”
History provides plenty of evidence of companies who used downturns to become dominant in their industries. If I ask you to name a breakfast cereal company, odds are you’ll say Kellogg’s and not Post. Guess which one kept advertising during the Depression and which went silent? When gas prices climbed in 1975, Chevy stepped up its advertising while Ford cut back by 14 percent. It was almost five years before Ford’s sales caught back up to Chevy’s. Go all the way back to the April 1927 issue of the Harvard Business Review, and you’ll find solid evidence that companies who stay the course during economic downturns achieve higher increases in sales when good times return.
Even during recessions, life and business go on. Companies and consumers still need products and services. They’re seeking sources for those products and services, and if you’ve opted to shut off the spending valve and wait things out, they’ll have a harder time finding you. Sure, you’re better than your competition, but how will they learn that if you’re not around to tell them?
So how can you turn tough times into an advantage? For starters, if there’s something you do that helps your customers stretch their budgets, let them know. If you sell industrial lubricants that reduce maintenance downtime and lengthen the time between overhauls, you can save customers money at a time they need it most. If your approach to your area of expertise is more cost-effective than those of your competitors, now is the perfect time to share that message. If your market is desperate for solutions you can provide, make sure people know you’re around.
When your competitors become fearful and pull back, there are fewer voices in the marketplace. That means your messages become even louder. Don’t worry about trying to be clever and creative. Just focus on what makes you better. Things like quality and reliability are even more important during tough times.
If you’re still thinking the best approach is to duck and wait for sunnier economic weather, I’ll share one more quote from Shawn Achor: “The best leaders are the ones who show their true colors not during the banner years, but during times of struggle.”
Scott Flood creates effective copy for companies and other organizations. His guide to evaluating freelance creative talent, The Smarter Strategy for Selecting Suppliers, can be downloaded at http://sfwriting.com.