Marketing into a recession: 3 emergency moves to survive and thrive

The interplay between marketing and recession is not obvious or intuitive, but the right decisions can make all the difference between mid-recession nose dive or post-recession success. A measured response will suit you better than a fear-based fumble. How to use a crisis to get an edge on your (unsustainable) competitors?
Written by
Merlin Eric Bola

Strategy & Content Direction

Last year's chaos didn’t stop at the doorstep of 2023.

Inflation into a recession, war and supply chain chaos, and AI breakthroughs gearing up for digital disruption – an age of outrageous news that we would have never expected only a few years ago. These rob people’s confidence to invest in their business and prevent pioneers from funding their missions.

If you plan to keep your stride steady through all of this and even nourish your mission along the way, you might have to tweak some knobs. One of those should be your approach to marketing.

Defense? No, offense.

1/ Adapt Your Offer

As circumstances change, priorities follow – adapt your marketing messages to respect this shift.

Be it your website, landing page or paid advertisement, make sure that your message resonates with your audience's current state of mind.

If the mindset if one of crisis, be a crisis-solver.

Don’t sell pancakes, sell painkillers

When companies cut expenses, be essential.

For the painkiller metaphor to truly work, they would need to solve problems instead of masking symptoms – but follow me here: When people are more risk-averse in times of economic hardship, you need to assess their readiness to invest in your specific offer right now.

Does it adress their current needs and problems?

Does it measure up to other absolutely essential investments?

Is it one itself?

If someone’s ribcage is broken with the bone sticking out and you offer a pancake lunch … resonance may fall flat. Frame your offer in a way that it solves painful problems, not daily itches that we have learned to work around.

We all like pancakes, but this situation is somewhat special.

»[During economic downturns], consumers take more time searching for durable goods and negotiate harder at the point of sale. They are more willing to postpone purchases, trade down, or buy less. Must-have features of yesterday are today's can-live-withouts.«

– From a Harvard Business School article

Prevent catastrophe

First-aid is fine, but the best doctors see early signs of future problems.

Point out threats and problems that people are unaware of. An example would be the build-up of technical debt (fragile plugin-jungles), a problem that flies under the radar until it becomes obvious – with your website either offline or scattered into HTML-shards. Or, until someone alerts you that a problem had been brewing all along.

There's a fine line, tho, between pointing out problems and framing your offer well, and twisting the knife.

Lower the entry threshhold

The just cited HBS article also points out that, unsurprisingly, lowering prices gets a better response in recessions than promotions.

You don’t see a way to lower your prices for people looking to spend less? If you’re selling physical products, you're probably right – lowering prices might be the last thing you can do with rising per-piece production costs.

It’s here that digital products have an edge.

Not only are they quite unphased by resources prices, supply chains and trade routes, they can easily be redesigned into smaller offers with lower prices to adjust the entry treshhold into your product cosmos. That’s great news if you already have digital products.

What if you don't?

Add value – digitally

When your price flexibility is restricted by supply chain economics, ask where you can add value with information.

You might find a whole cosmos of connected challenges around your core offer, and you can help here. This is where you start to unshackle your business from it’s full exposure to supply chain conditions. This is an invitation to grow a digital leg to your business. Physical products can be sold once, digital products indefinitely at scale.

Bits and bytes move close to lightning speed, and at no increased costs when international shipment clogs.

2/ Build On Trust

When people are hesitant to take gambles, trust already built is an invaluable asset.

Those who have already bought from you are more likely to buy from you again – if you delivered, that is. If you've been in business for a while, leverage your opportunity to bystep aquisition costs for new customers and build a stronger relationship with those you already have.

You already reached them once, so it's only smart to make the most of the opportunity.

Leverage your list – immediately, if needed

Having a list of customers to reach on short notice can be a blessing in times of trouble.

Jean-Luc, a friend and performance coach, recently published an article about the day when he messed up his accounting by accident. As a result, he overspent on growing the business and found himself under pressure to raise $40.000 in within 24 hours or fail to pay his staff.

He sent out a mail to his customers that he will raise prices. If they wanted to maintain their old price, they were to pay immediately. It worked and he was able to pay his staff.

Now, you don’t have to go as high-pressure as he did, and it’s unlikely that your financial hole needs to be filled on such short notice. But it illustrates the point – your most valuable asset are people that are already confident in your product or service.

Don't forget them.

3/ When Everybody Zigs … Zag

When winter is coming, companies tend to hibernate.

To lower their metabolic rate, they first cut expenses across the board – including their marketing budget. Frankly, hacking into their marketing budget with a cleaver might be the worst idea they ever had. What happens if you resist to join the slaughter and instead take the time and pay attention to cut back on expenses selectively?

study in the Journal of Strategic Marketing was published in 2011 as we bounced back from the 2009 recession.

The authors concluded: 

»… marketing can be significantly more important to the firm during a recession than at any other time. The paper argues that marketing budgets are cut because of a short-term focus by top management and the absence of a market orientation. The evidence also confirms that firms who curtail their marketing expenditure are likely to jeopardise future sales and profits.«

Winning new customers and keeping your revenue flywheel turning might be what your mission needs to weather the storm.

Zag: Increase your marketing budget instead (if you manage to find a way)

Let's go one step further: What would happen if you found a way to double your marketing budget instead?

As other companies keep their breath, won’t you suddenly stand out in a formerly crowded market? You could make your presence felt while whispering. What if you sent out more mails instead of less – within sensible means. What if you made an effort to adapt your offer, optimized your landing pages or doubled down on ads?

What if you zagged when everybody else zigs?

If you plan to come out on the other side of an economic downturn with some momentum for the next leg up, be willing to take a risk.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. 

Mindset shapes reality

What if you could not only weather the current economic storm, but somehow come out stronger on the other side?

Many successful businesses were forged during the last recession – like Slack, Square, AirBnB, Uber and WhatsApp – and yours now has the opportunity to mirror their mid-recession courage and post-recession trajectory.

Their edge? They felt disruptive, not disrupted.

A 2005 study from the International Journal of Research in Marketing suggests, in most cases, to turn your marketing proactive in recessions:

»… firms that have a proactive marketing response in a recession achieve superior business performance even during the recession.«

The authors call to interpret a recession as an opportunity, driven by the courage to go on the offensive.


I guess it's natural to feel at least a little tense during times like these.

There are all kinds of apocalyptic expectations built on the chaos of today, but please don't let that stop you from taking action. You'll be happy that you did when doomsday-predictions turn out to be off target … which they likely will. It's just never as bad as fear-driven media reporting likes to suggest.

This is a bottleneck, not the end of our story.

It's the right time to seize opportunities that others may be overlooking. It’s necessary to monitor market sentiment, but don’t let emotions shape your strategic decisions. We will hear stories of recession success after the storm has blown over and a new equilibirium has emerged.

Will you be among them?

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