Marketing in an economic downturn – How to make the most of the weapons already at your disposal

Branding, Discovery, Marketing / 26.03.21
Mark Vaesen

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last 12 months, you’ll know that we’re currently going through some pretty tough times.

Most business owners I’ve met since the start of the coronavirus pandemic agree with the general view that this is, indeed, “unprecedented” and unlike anything any of us have ever experienced.

For many (although not all), business is harder to come by and profitability is down.

In the hard times, the natural instinct is to go into survival mode and cut back on spending wherever you can.

calculator showing marketing budget assessment

And one of the areas that usually finds itself right at the top of the list of cut-backs is marketing.

But cutting back on your marketing investment could be a big mistake.

Equally, bucking the trend and increasing your marketing spend right now could be the best decision you ever made.

Why you shouldn’t cut your investment in marketing

If you’re brave, and prepared to take a longer-term view, a recession or economic downturn can actually be an ideal time to increase your marketing spend.

There’s plenty of data available to support the reasons why, but for now, let’s focus on just three:

1. You’ll get ahead of your competitors, who are probably cutting back

Based on the assumption that most businesses reduce their marketing investment during a recession, this is your chance to get ahead of the pack.

As someone else said – “Think about it; if two people are talking to you, and one stops and leaves the room, you’re only going to listen to the one who stays and carries on talking.”

By the same token, a brand that’s judged to be on the decline because it’s gone quiet can very quickly see the effect as word-of-mouth spreads and the perception of failure increases.

Going completely quiet can be seen as a sign of decline and failure.

History is full of examples of businesses that stuck to their guns coming out on top:

In the 1920s, when cereal rivals Post (who?) cut back significantly on its advertising budget, Kellogg’s doubled its own spend, investing heavily in radio and introducing Rice Krispies and our friends Snap, Crackle and Pop. Kellogg’s profits grew by 30% and they became the industry leader and never looked back.

In 1973, during the energy crisis in the US, Toyota resisted the temptation to drop their marketing budget and decided to stick to its long-term strategy. By 1976, Toyota had overtaken (so to speak) VW as the top imported car maker in the states.

In the recession of 1990-91, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell pounced when McDonalds decided to cut its marketing spend. Pizza Hut’s sales increased 61%, and Taco Bell’s went up by 40%.

McDonalds? Declined by 28%.

2. You’ll stand out from your competition

When customers’ business becomes harder to win, the companies that succeed are the ones that stand out from the crowd.

If you cut back on your marketing, it reduces your brand profile and your online presence dwindles, leaving the door open for braver, more forward-thinking competitors to take advantage.

If, on the other hand, you can remain focused on what sets you apart from everyone else, and keep telling the story of why you’re different, you’ll get noticed and remembered – and importantly, by the right people.

When your customers do gain back the money to spend, they’ll instinctively buy from brands that have stayed top of mind.

Historically, businesses that cut their marketing spend completely in the first year of a downturn, took FIVE YEARS to recover.

Image courtesy of The Drum

3. You’ll be more profitable

When times are tough, it’s tempting to widen the net and take on customers or businesses you wouldn’t normally want.

Usually, it’ll be something outside your core discipline – something you might be able to do, but not particularly well. Or you might simply start dropping your prices to win business.

Either way, your profitability’s going to be affected. You’ll make no money if you’re just a busy fool.

How to improve your marketing right now, without spending big bucks

Ok, ok, we get it. Being brave about your marketing in a downturn is A Good Thing.

That’s all well and good, but when times are tough, there’s every chance money’s tight too.

So what can you do that’s going to have a quick impact, but won’t be a big investment?

1. Focus on what makes you different

The temptation at times like this is to look at tactics rather than strategy.

The thinking is that if you act right now and do something that generates sales, that’s better than spending time thinking about the direction you’re going in and what makes you different.

But hold on just a sec.

We can personally testify that working on your strategy can help. A lot. And very quickly.

If you do networking of any sort, you’re going to be regularly delivering your Elevator Pitch – your 30-second spiel that you hope like hell interests the person you’re talking to enough for them to want to hear some more.

In tough times, you can fall into the trap of casting your net wider and wider, claiming to be an expert in more and more disciplines, which actually has the opposite effect – you just end up looking like a jack-of-all-trades, confusing your audience about what you do, and become instantly forgettable as a result.

Now’s the time to focus on what it is you do better than anyone else. What it is that sets you apart from your competitors.

Fine-tune your elevator pitch and fine-tune it again. Find as much of a niche as you dare. Be brave.

Give your audience a clearly defined hook and, when they’re giving you 30 seconds of their time, they’ll get it – and they’ll remember you.

Of course, the reason we stop doing this in the first place is Fear.

Fear that we’ll miss an opportunity to sell something (anything, dammit!) to that prospect.

But I can tell you from experience, this doesn’t happen.

Imagine your marketing’s like a dartboard. You want to hit either a double twenty or a bullseye – these are your perfect customers. Your chances of success are going to increase when you aim for those parts of the board.

Your marketing should be like a dart board

You’ll still get some darts going near enough to those targets to be of interest, but start aiming all over the place and you’re going to end up with as many darts in the back of your bedroom door as on the board itself.

So spend an hour or so defining what it is you do really well, and fine-tune a message you can start trying out straight away, next time you’re networking.

(Incidentally, we offer a service to our clients to help them do this. It’s called a Discovery session. Get in touch and ask us about it.)

2. Define a better elevator pitch by using questions

To really nail your elevator pitch, try framing what you do as a question.

When the person you’re talking to is asked a question, they kind of have to engage with you, don’t they? They run the risk of looking like a bit of a bell if they just blank you completely.

It also makes them start sorting through their brain’s filing cabinet to find the sort of person you want to work with, and this helps them understand what you do.

I used to be crap at this.

I used to say “We’re a Brand, Web and Digital Marketing agency”, trying desperately to cover all the bases. You could see in the person’s face that I sounded like any of the other half dozen agencies they’d met that afternoon, and they were instantly forgetting me.

So I got a bit braver, and decided to focus on the Brand and Website design that we’re really, really good at.

a group of customers you can market to

Although my fear was that we’d miss out on conversations about Digital Marketing and SEO and that sort of stuff, I now say something like…

“You know those businesses that are really good at what they do, but get frustrated that they miss out to competitors that aren’t any better than them, but just have a better brand image?”

(Pause to let them think for a moment.)

“Well, we help them attract more of their ideal customers, by having a strong brand image, especially online.”

(A look of understanding lights up in their eyes.)

“Oh, so you do branding and websites?”

(I nod.)

“Do you do SEO as well?”

So don’t be afraid to be specific about what you do.

Being a generalist makes you forgettable. Being a specialist makes you desirable.

3. Establish some brand consistency

We’ve written before about the importance of brand identity to every business, large or small.

In an economic downturn, you might not have the finance (or appetite) to look at a complete rebrand, but you should review what marketing material you’ve already got and make sure it’s up to date and consistent.

The first step is to gather together all your current marketing material for an audit.

Include anything and everything a customer might come into contact with, from the first moment they hear about you to when they actually become a paying customer.

Look at your digital assets – website, social media profiles, email marketing if you do that – and your printed material like business cards, letterhead, brochures, leaflets and so on.

First of all, is there anything you don’t need, or that’s completely out of date? Ditch it.

Then look at what’s left.

Does it all look consistent in style? Or are you using different versions of your logo, colour palette or graphics?

Your brand can have a big impact on your marketing

Look at the messaging; does it have the right tone of voice, and is that tone consistent?

If you need to, find a designer to help you get a consistent style. This shouldn’t be too expensive as it’s a tidying-up exercise, not a start-again-from-scratch exercise.

Take a bit of time to review and rewrite any bits of copy that aren’t quite on message.

Focus on the few key bits of marketing material that you’re going to use the most, so you can keep costs down and save a bit of time.

It might not be perfect, but it will make a difference.

4. Tweak your website

Your website’s relatively easy to improve because you haven’t got any printing or production costs to think about.

It’s important not to attempt a redesign of the website; what you’re doing here is making the most of what you’ve got.

Check your Google Analytics to see which pages are being viewed the most, so you can focus on the bits that will make the biggest difference.

Use Google Analytics to find out which pages get the most traffic.

a) Your home page is probably the most popular page on your site. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and read the page as though for the first time. What’s the key message about your business you get within the first few seconds of reading? Does this reflect what your business is about now? Could it do with updating?

b) Do the same thing for your next 3 most viewed pages. Is the messaging still right? Could these pages be improved to encourage the user to click through to other parts of the site?

c) Review all the pages on the site for a suitable Call to Action. Is it clear what the user should do next? Could you add or change your Call to Action to improve the conversion rate of visitors to enquiries?

5. Run a mini digital marketing campaign

To expand your reach and start getting in front of more of your target customers, you can run a mini Digital Marketing campaign.

All of these ideas can be set up within a few days and at little cost.

a) A search-based campaign, focusing on a particular search term

Long-term SEO campaigns are often built around using this tactic. All you’re doing here is taking one small chunk and implementing it as a mini project.

Thinking back to what it is you want to focus on (see point 1 above), think about what search terms you want to be found for.

research search terms

Do some research using a tool like SEMrush or Moz Pro (you can try both for free) to get some data on which versions of your search terms are the ones people search for the most.

Once you’ve settled on your search term, create a new piece of content (a page or blog post) that you can add to your site.

Make sure the content’s good quality and of decent length and detail. 100 words stuffed with your search term isn’t going to cut it; you need to be writing 500 words absolute minimum. 1,000 words is even better.

Once your page is online, start circulating it through your social media channels. Tweet about it, post it on LinkedIn and Facebook and make sure you include a link back to the page on your website.

The page will probably be indexed by Google within a couple of weeks, so check in after that to see if your search position for your chosen term has improved. Google Analytics will tell you how many people have had a look at the page, and where they came from.

Whatever you’re writing about, make sure the page has a Call to Action on it. Although it’s great to get people reading your new content, what we really want is to convert some of them into leads or enquiries.

b) Carry out a targeted LinkedIn marketing campaign with your new pitch message

Having developed your new elevator pitch (see point 2), you can try it out on your target audience via LinkedIn.

If, for example, you want to target Marketing Managers in the South East, you can find them on LinkedIn. Send them an invite to connect, with a very short, generic message in the first instance.

For those that accept your invite, follow up with your elevator pitch.

Don’t go over-the-top and get all pushy. No-one likes being sold to. Approach it the same way as if you were meeting them face-to-face for the first time. Tell them what you do, clearly and succinctly, and let them engage with you if they’re interested.

If you can, try to give them something useful for free. Maybe you could send them a useful template, or a link to an article you’ve written (or seen elsewhere) that you think they’d be interested in.

Try it with 10 people to start with and see what reaction you get. Fine-tune your message as you need to, and try it with another 10. Keep it manageable enough so you can keep it personal. You’ll get more success that way.

c) Create an email marketing campaign for your existing client base

If you’ve got an email list of existing customers (and one that complies with all the GDPR regulations, obviously), you can very quickly get a message out to remind them that you’re there and how you can help them.

The harsh reality is that your existing customers (and potential ones) can forget about you quite quickly.

This is an opportunity to put yourself back in the front of their minds.

Again, you don’t want your message to be salesy. Instead, you could:

i. Tell them about something you’ve done recently for another client – a success story, or how you solved a particular problem

ii. Tell them about a new product or service

iii. Give them a free bit of advice about something in your field of expertise, and invite them to contact you if they want to talk about it further

iv. Share your new blog post or piece of content. Write an introduction to the piece and add a link to the full article underneath

Now, go forth!

So now you’re armed with several ideas for marketing that will have an immediate impact and won’t cost the earth. Perfect for when there’s an economic downturn or times are tough.

Don’t give up on your marketing when things are hard. It’s the perfect time to take advantage!

Need some help?

Tomango helps small businesses get more of the customers they want by helping them create the right image for their brand and building a dominant online presence.

We know running a small business is hard and that occasionally time, money and expertise can be in short supply.

If you’d like some help putting some of these ideas into place, give us a call on 01273 814019 or email