It’s not an article anyone wanted to write. The most recent ONS figures confirm the UK has gone into recession. Not just any recession. The worst quarterly slump ever recorded. Chancellor Rushi Sunak has admitted “hard times are here”. The economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic means the UK “is grappling with something that is unprecedented”.
Whilst the figures will certainly improve as the economy reopens, barring a second wave, the ‘V-shaped recovery’ many hoped for seems unlikely. Businesses now need to build economic uncertainty into their planning. Throw Brexit into the mix and it really is a difficult time to plan.
So, what does that mean for marketing in a recession?
1. Don’t be short-sighted
Marketing budgets are often one of the first things to be cut when times are tough. In a way, it’s understandable. Unlike fixed costs – e.g. rent and staff wages – marketing activity is typically seen as ‘discretionary spend’. That means it can be cut or temporarily paused and the business can still continue to operate.
However, to stop investing in marketing entirely would be a short-sighted move. Turning off the spending taps will mean less people are finding your business. Without the marketing activity to spur interest and drive sales, that’s less money coming in.
Of course, that’s a very simplistic way of looking at it. Not all marketing activity leads to income. Perhaps too little of it does. But there are plenty of persuasive reasons to encourage you to continue spending during a recession:
- There’s less noise. Whilst other companies are cutting back, you can increase your share of the voice.
- That also means advertising costs drop as there’s less competition – more bang for your buck.
- Project an image of stability to your customers.
- Ensure your brand doesn’t drop off the radar and others move in on your space.
Some go even further and suggest you should spend more during a recession.
“Companies that have bounced back most strongly from previous recessions usually did not cut their marketing spend, and in many cases actually increased it. But they did change what they were spending their marketing budget on and when to reflect the new context in which they operated.”
Nirmalya Kumar and Koen Pauwels, Harvard Business Review
So, how can you change how you operate?
2. Gather market insights
It’s a different world today to the one 12 months ago.
Whether your focus is B2B or B2C you’ll already have seen the impact on your target audience. For the former, whole sectors have been unable to operate through lockdown with businesses running out of cash as a result. This has had a knock-on effect on supply chains and the wider economy. As a result, on the consumer-side we’re witnessing mass unemployment on a scale not seen since the early 80s.
That’s a very brief summary of how Covid-19 has impacted the market.
It’s not necessarily bad news for your business, though. The key thing here is to spend a bit of time understanding the intricacies of the market situation and how it relates to your business. Some parts of the economy are booming – as an example, online food sales have surged by £5.8bn in 2020 – and there might be segments within your target audience who are looking to spend money.
Even where you’re struggling to see the positives, there are usually opportunities to be prized.
- Ask your audience – put out questions on social media or speak to them in person.
- Review your website analytics – what content and products are your audience engaging with?
- Check out industry reports from the likes of Mintel and YouGov – what trends are they seeing?
3. Revisit your marketing strategy and plan
Given the upheaval caused by Covid-19, you need to revisit your marketing strategy and, potentially, rip it up.
Thinking about the current market conditions…
- Are your objectives still relevant?
- Is your business positioned effectively?
- Are you targeting the right types of people?
As a very basic illustration…
Your original objective might have been to increase the number of new customer sales by 10% before the end of 2020.
Instead, you may decide to shift your objectives and focus on increasing existing customer sales.
You may position yourself differently either through a new pricing strategy or product focus. Perhaps you’ll choose to target a specific customer segment – e.g. high-value customers or those of a particular age demographic.
After dealing with the bigger strategic questions, you should revisit your marketing plan.
Your marketing plan looks at the actual tactics for how you will achieve your objectives – the channel mix, timings and budget etc.
What worked before might not work so well now….
Your previous strategy focused on new customer acquisition.
Now, though, you want to increase the average order value of existing customers.
So, how do you change your tactics?
Instead of focusing time and budget on driving prospects to your site through paid search, you decide the new focus is better served by revamping your email marketing activity.
This all needs to be reflected in your plan.
Within all this, it’s important to not lose sight of what makes your brand special or unique. “The danger is that every business will start to blend into one as they make the necessary changes but you need a point of differentiation more than ever,” says marketing strategist Sophie Cross. “What is your brand’s take on the changes that need to happen? Beyond employee and customer safety being a priority (which should be a given) what are you doing that’s memorable to help and stand out? Act and communicate with confidence.”
4. Think digital
Rightly, there is a drive for businesses to be more digitally minded in the post-Covid world. Some of the most successful examples of ‘pivoting’ involved those businesses who were able to shift operations online. Certainly, if there was to be a second wave and/or lockdown, being able to move to an online delivery model is a way to continue trading and keep your business going.
Beyond Covid-19, digital is very much the here and now. But businesses will be at different stages of their digital journey.
- You’ve had a website for a few years, but it’s no longer fit for purpose.
- Your website is doing a great job, but you haven’t fully grasped social media or email marketing.
- You’re taking your business online for the first time and not sure where to start.
For Rich Brassett, founder of digital agency Long Live King, the first step in thinking digital is to explore what problems you are trying to solve.
“Start small and build up slowly to make it achievable,” he says. “The iterative process of launching and learning allows you to deploy new platforms or processes quickly and gives your team or customers a chance to offer feedback.”
It might seem you need to spend a lot of money on new digital solutions, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
“If the budget is tight or the outcome is unknown, rather than develop a full e-commerce website straight away, platforms like Shopify could be ideal to get you up and running,” adds Rich. “Run that for 6 months with minimal investment and see how your customers respond.”
5. Look for low-cost solutions
I’m a big fan of the quote: “Nothing begets creativity like constraints.” That is the less money you have to spend, the more creative your solutions have to be. And this certainly applies to marketing.
Often the best examples of this are guerrilla-style marketing campaigns that cost little but wind up generating huge media coverage.
At a more immediate level, people often overlook the value of word of mouth and referrals. Again, a good review or testimonial costs you nothing.
Recently, I’ve been loving the low-budget LinkedIn videos from Manchester accountant and Informi blogger Stuart Hurst – including this amazing Matrix spoof.
The point is there are countless ways to promote your business at a low-cost – here’s 43 cheap marketing ideas to start you off. Another great way to manage costs is by opening a free business bank account to track your spending.
Not only this, but you now have a wide range of tools – from insight-gathering to content creation and publishing – to help you do this easily and cheaply. Here are some of our favourite free tools:
- Weebly – build a website for free
- Unsplash – thousands of royalty-free photos to download
- Google Keyword Planner – gather insights on keywords
- Answer the Public – see the questions people are asking on Google
- Google Trends – evaluate search trends all over the world
- Google Analytics – monitor your website performance
- Hubspot – free CRM and email marketing software
- Buffer – social media scheduling tool
- The Marketing Meetup – great webinars and podcasts all about marketing
- Trello – flexible project management tool
- Wave – free accounting software tool for sole-traders, freelancers and micro-businesses
A final bonus tip is to say you’re not on your own. There are plenty marketing professionals out there keen to help. Consulting with freelancers or small-business focused agencies can be a good move – even if it costs you money. Sometimes it’s worth paying money to get a fresh perspective on your strategy and plan. Plus, if your hands are full with other things, outsourcing can give you extra breathing room. We could all do with a breather right now.