How to Market Through Recession Jitters

Experts: Focus on Value, Enable Consumers to Be Informed, in Control

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NEW YORK ( -- It's clear that marketers must continue to speak to consumers through a recession, but crafting the message is a tricky endeavor. "You have to realize, people's mind-sets have fundamentally changed," said Tom Agan, executive director-head of consulting for Interbrand, New York. "People are moving into fear mode."

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An Ad Age Editorial

As consumers grapple with doomsday headlines, a wildly gyrating stock market and declines in the value of their homes, marketers must adjust their communications. Experts say to steer clear of messaging that is aspirational, optimistic, lighthearted or patriotic. Instead, marketers should offer reassurance, empower the consumer and emphasize value, not price.

"There is scientific evidence that when [consumers] don't get information that matches their expectations, they literally can't see it," said Mr. Agan. "We're going into an environment where [marketers] have to ... acknowledge a little bit of that reality."

Patriotic messages
One of the biggest missteps marketers could make in this environment is pushing patriotic messages and calls to action, along the lines of spending to save the economy, experts said. Car companies, namely General Motors, famously told consumers to "Keep America Rolling" after 9/11. That campaign was applauded by some but lambasted by many.

"Last time I think that worked was in World War II. There is no evidence it worked after 9/11," said Avi Dan, former global executive director of Euro RSCG. "People consume based on self-interest and their own needs."

Keeping existing brand spokesmen in place could also backfire. Mr. Dan presented Ameriprise Financial's use of Dennis Hopper as an example. "It was great advertising for the mood of the country last year, and Dennis Hopper connected very well with baby boomers," he said. "[Now], the message is a little bit more somber. Dennis Hopper isn't the most somber of guys, so the messenger is wrong for these times."

Hal Fass, a senior consultant at Consumer Dynamics, pointed out that because consumers are feeling as if they have no control, marketers should seek to restore that balance. "Instead of just telling people about a product, tell them to go online and find out the facts for themselves," he said. "Be respectful in giving people a sense of control and empowerment."

In addition, wary consumers will be seeking reassurance, especially from the financial-services industry. Mr. Agan pointed to Con Ed's "On It" campaign, which followed power outages in New York, as a good example. "What they're saying implicitly but not explicitly is acknowledging the problem without having to say we've solved it," he said. "Those kinds of messages are very, very effective."

Show, don't tell
But Lars Perner, assistant professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California, warned that marketers should be careful not to come across as condescending. He added that because consumers' reactions are fear-based at the moment, messages that are risk-averse will be well received.
The Messages
Tips for advertising in a recession:
  • Don't hawk patriotism.

  • Focus on value and rational benefits, not price.

  • Look for ways to put the consumer in control.

  • Evaluate existing brand messengers for appropriateness.

  • Employ humor and escapism.
"Telling consumers what they must do in order to manage their finances would alienate many," he said. "Instead, it is better to emphasize value provided, leaving the consumer to make the connection with their financial situations. Since there are large variations in the situations faced among consumers, any content which is too stereotypical could backfire."

And just when you think you've got it all figured out, it will be time to change tack. As consumers settle into this situation -- and it is declared an actual recession -- they'll begin looking for distractions, experts said. Messages that invoke humor, promote escapism, emphasize affordable indulgences and even take a shot at authority will likely be well received.

"It won't test well right now," said Mr. Agan. "But after people get tired of dealing with this, and at some point they will, something that's a little more escapist could be very powerful."

Mark Barden, partner at brand consultancy EatBigFish, points out that late-night hosts are already having plenty of laughs about the impending recession. "In a recession, when there's a lot of doom and gloom in the air, it is precisely the time when [consumers] need to have a laugh about it," he said. "But it has to be carefully done or you could look like a fool that doesn't understand."
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