Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Marketing during economic turbulence

In times of an economic recession (and especially during a depression) marketing is the business area that is normally hit hard. When companies want to cut cost or downsize, it’s to the marketing budget, expenses and department they look first.

However, this is a strategic mistake. To adapt to the new economic reality, companies need their marketing professionals to analyze their current market position and to find out what their best strategy to survive will be. Marketing is uniquely positioned to analyze the changes in customer behaviour and advice on the optimal way to reach them.

To give an example, luxury research firm Unity Marketing interviewed 1,200 affluent consumers (average income $209,500) at the top 20 percent of U.S. household during October 3-8, 2008 about their mindset since the bail-out of Wall Street. The result shows that the respondents are overall spending less on luxury items. However, they do splurge on those items that they really want, even increasing their spending for those targeted luxuries. The way they shop has changed as well – to resist temptation, they avoid stores. Luxury store owners have to come up with new marketing and sales techniques to lure these customers back, such as cash-back gift card sales as Bergdorf Goodman is conducting.

Analyze your company image and overall performance
Any crisis, especially one of the current magnitude that is riddled with insecurities, forces companies to take a long, hard look at themselves. They need to evaluate their corporate vision and mission – are they still the same ones that are in the annual reports and the corporate website? Are they still in sync with the current times and new reality or is it time to refresh or reposition? Many high-tech companies launched a technology that they wanted to bring to the average company or consumer. Many of those technologies and products never took off. Computerworld published an overview of the 21 biggest technology flops, among them ebooks.

Even when a company is doing all right now, what are its survival chances? Will its customers allocate more, less or the same budget for items such as Internet security?It might be time to kill some scared cows, even (or especially) if they are the brainchild of the owners. Apart from using your in-house marketing experts, the best option is involving an external strategist to get a clear view.

London-based Financial Times is building steam, especially in the US. Any crisis is always good for the media, since the public is information-hungry. FT did well by the latest “if it bleeds, it leads” - its September newsstand sales rose with 30% in the US and 20% in Europe and Asia. Registered users of www.ft.com rose in one year from 30,000 to 750,000. FT also advises media companies to bring out their newspaper in several formats, push equally to enlist hard copy customers and online subscribers, using tools such as RSS. FT is also in favour of video, based on more than 1 million views a month.

Build new marketing strategies, be creative
One the main drives of survival is creativity – the ability to adapt to new circumstances. Based on the analysis mentioned before, it might be time for the company to reexamine the current offerings and adjust the current suite of products or services. There might be “sleepers” among them – a product of service that is now less-promoted, but is more affordable and consistent with the overall brand.

Based on the advice of the in-house marketing experts, it might be time to make a bold move and sell your product in new markets. Based on the reshuffling of the economic landscape, there will be emerging market niches and customer groups and demands not identified before. Clever companies grab these opportunities – being an early market entrant always pays off.

A recent example is the Australian Tourist NT which is concentrating on local visitors, since the number of international visitors is dropping. "Certainly we would anticipate we might have some softening in international arrivals, so our focus will be to further strengthen our domestic market. Tourist NT stated that it will “certainly continue investing in our marketing activities with partners to ensure that we have a sustained presence in the market to do what we can to ensure we get people visiting."

Communicate with your employees
During economic turmoil, employees are worried about their jobs. They want to know (and have to right to know!) how healthy their company is and if there are any plans in pipeline for cutting costs. Employees are the most valuable asset a company has, so it is foolish not to leverage this main asset!

A new research released today by global public relations firm Weber Shandwick shows that 86% of the respondents see their senior executives or management as "believable" and "trustworthy" sources on the topic. Sadly enough, more than half didn’t hear anything at all from the company leaders.

Don’t cut your marketing budget
The first thing that most companies do when times get tough is cut their marketing budgets. The recent Bellwether survey, published by the IPA, found that Q3 annual marketing budgets have been cut at a record rate as the economic crisis weakens business confidence. Key budgets hit are main media advertising, PR, events sponsorship and market research.It is a strategic mistake to ignore your customers when your competitors are still out there approaching them, as Post found out. In 1929, Kellogg’s and Post were in a neck-and-neck race for the breakfast cereal market. Unlike its rival, Kellogg's continued to advertise through the Great Depression, gaining a position of market dominance that the company still enjoys today.

Instead of cutting your marketing budget, look at your marketing mix and communication channels to your customers and readjust. Instead of going to a tradeshow, you might opt for more SEO and PPC, conduct more online campaigns, or increase the frequency of your corporate newsletter.

Avoid cutting your prices
In a time when customers become more conservative in their spending, it is a lower price that will sway them to purchase, but their need for the product or service. Impulse buying is replaced by ROI buying. Slashing prices for consumer goods can lead to cheapening your brand, which will result in long-term brand image damage.

Again, marketing professionals are uniquely placed to analyze how the current mixture of price and product/service is perceived by the customers. Adjustment to the overall marketing strategy might be needed. If a company is focusing too much on one small market niche with customers most hit by the crisis, it might want to branch out.

Before adjusting prices, analyze all of the elements of the marketing mix and make sure to fully understand what drives current and future customers.

Pamper your customers
As outlined above, customers will be driven by quality and service, and less by the actual purchase price. Customers have to feel good with the product or service itself, but also with the company that provides it. Giving customers extra attention pays off big time. In tough times self-esteem suffers, and companies that care about their customers will maintain existing customers more easily as well as build long-term brand loyalty.

A recent example is investment firm T. Rowe Price that began running a new ad campaign in the last two weeks, with the headline “Confidence.” The campaign ran in the Financial Times, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, communicating that “ultimately, there's one thing that will see our investors through these unsettling times ... confidence.”

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