Branding When Times Are Tough

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It’s not pretty out there.

Recent economic events do not paint a rosy picture for anyone trying to grow a business. Credit has tightened. Consumer confidence is down. Bad news has rippled through every segment of the economy, and what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Call me crazy, but I believe these down-cycles are actually net-positive. Why? Because they teach us to do more with less and to evaluate every dollar that we invest. These are lessons that will serve our brands for years to come.

Out of necessity, it’s a great time to adopt a fresh mindset. Take this tough market as an opportunity to consider avenues and approaches that may not have been on your radar even a year ago.

The following are some “dos and don’ts” for steering your brand through a tough economy.

Don’t go dark.

An Association of National Advertisers survey, released in August, found that 53% of marketers expect to cut ad budgets in the next six months. As a means of guarding short-term profitability, many companies have already zeroed-out their marketing spend.

The data is quite clear, however, that companies that spend through a downturn tend to emerge stronger once things inevitably pick back up. If your competitors go dark, this is a prime opportunity for you to gain share of voice and market. Take advantage of the chance to hammer home your strengths and benefits while they’re silent.

Establish ROI.

Quick: Which of your marketing activities provide the strongest returns? If you don’t know, your management doesn’t know, and they will come looking for such seemingly “soft” money soon (if they haven’t already). Once they do that, you’re in danger of violating our first rule above.

Look at each element of your marketing mix to determine what’s driving the business. Then apply that knowledge to future mix decisions. And share that information with the powers that be. This should be a habit, even in the best of times, and it’s not too late to start now.

Begin with the end in mind.

If you’re not managing the brand toward a clear positioning, a tough market will quickly expose that shortcoming. Positioning forces you to define your target, benefits, differences, character and brand equity. All of these help you make better brand investment decisions.

If you don’t have a positioning, once again, it’s not too late. I recommend crafting a matrix in which you assess the perceptions that your competitors currently own. This will tell you where you can and cannot play. Clear-eyed assessment of your present and future strengths will then tell you where you can not just play, but win.

Get focused and get creative.

Once you’ve defined what you stand for, concentrate your resources on that core idea, especially if your budget has been trimmed.

But “more focused” doesn’t mean “less creative.” I encourage you to brainstorm ideas for both your communications and your experience. Work with a small team to generate plenty of ideas in a “money is no object” scenario. Then evaluate the output, asking questions like: Which ideas can be modified to deliver 80% of the value at 20% of the cost? Which can be implemented quickly and at minimal cost, but with strong expected value?

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. If you’ve been slow to adopt emerging media, for example, it may be time to remedy that situation.

Finally, keep your pants on.

I’m referring here to pricing and promotional strategies, of course. (What did you think I meant?) Fight the urge to drop prices or engage in “push” activities like short-term trade promotions.  These are the kinds of things a sales team I’ve worked with referred to as “dropping our drawers.”

Price reduction means margin reduction, and may even undermine brand loyalty, because you’ve implied that you overcharged in the past. Trade deals, if not pulled through the chain, simply move your inventory to another place of business, a short-term fix if there ever was one.

A version of this post appeared in the October 17, 2008, Business Courier of Cincinnati, in the column “That Branding Thing.”

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2008 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

One Reply to “Branding When Times Are Tough”

  1. Keep your pants on or up? How ever you want to put it is good advice. If you are selling the good stuff = things that have value, like your services or goods = “Gold”/never worth 0. Buy low sell high. Never panic sell your gold! Rent it, sell a share of it, barter if you can, but hold on to your ass, sets the tone for growth. Dump the crap! If you have some crap for sale, you won’t miss it anyway and with it gone, you will have more room for planting and growth. If you can’t sell it for a profit or at least break even! Donate it! Donate it before it is useless to everyone including you! Take the write off before it has lost all of it’s nutritional value to anyone. You get the write off and some else might be able to plant a seed or two. By the way donating and writing it off is better than giving it away with a discount! It doesn’t hurt as much as giving it away at a discount and it makes you feel good too. Good luck out there.Hannah

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