For many months now, economists have talked of a recession with a hard landing, a recession with a soft landing, a recession in the second half of 2023, or no recession at all. The latter group of recession naysayers aside, the consensus among economy watchers does seem to be that some type of recession is imminent. Whether it will be deep, shallow, short, or long is anyone’s guess, although some experts say we should be prepared to experience a recession that’s different from what we’ve seen in the past, which may not be such a bad thing.
A recession, by definition, is a significant, widespread, and prolonged economic downturn. The common measure of a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative economic output, or gross domestic product (GDP). As of this writing, we haven’t seen that yet. GDP in the fourth quarter of 2022, the latest quarter we have numbers for, was +2.9%. The prior quarter was +3.2%.
Recessions are a lot like buses: There’s always one coming down the road from somewhere, and more than likely, it won’t arrive precisely at the expected time. On average, recessions occur about every 10 years. Luckily, these downturn periods tend to be short-lived. Three-quarters of the recessions that have occurred throughout U.S. history, for example, have lasted less than a year. The last full-blown recession in the United States, the so-called Great Recession, lasted a little longer, occurring in late 2007 and running until the summer of 2009.
So, if you look at it just from that perspective, we’re definitely due for a downturn. And marketers would be wise to start preparing for it now.
Recessions can severely test marketing departments, but they can also present them with tremendous opportunities. In fact, it’s said that recessions make marketers because if you can build brand awareness and grow market share when customers are nervous, extra cost-conscious, and cutting back on spending, you can set your business up for even greater success in the long run.
Let’s drill down on how an economic downturn can impact marketing and look at some of the key challenges marketers face during this time of caution and concern for businesses.
Recessions negatively impact businesses on many fronts, from slowing down sales and operations to reducing cash flow and increasing borrowing costs. They can also spark feelings of uncertainty, fear, and even panic among stakeholders — from customers to C-suite executives.
These high emotions can fuel knee-jerk decision-making by business leaders looking to find quick wins in cost savings. And because the marketing department is typically viewed by non-marketers as a cost center rather than a revenue generator, it’s often a top target for recession-fueled budget cuts. Many marketers are already feeling the recessionary pinch as their companies look to pre-emptively cut costs by slashing marketing spend — a short-sighted move given how fleeting recessions can be.
Pulling back on ad spending and reducing marketing staff during a recession can do more harm than good. A recent Nielsen study found that some marketers weren’t spending enough to drive the maximum return on investment (ROI) in advance of the recession. Cutting back when you’re already underspending doesn’t make good business sense, and it certainly won’t leave your company well-positioned for the recovery.
This brings us to our first challenge for the many marketing pros tasked with marketing during a recession. The pressure is on to spend smarter — which includes focusing on marketing efficiency and minimizing ad waste. As this post explains, spending smarter requires you to measure what’s really working in your customer acquisition efforts. You also need to take your measurement approach much deeper into your revenue funnel, and connect the online-to-offline experience. This will help you earn the confidence that every marketing dollar you spend is being optimized to maximize total sales.
The upside of spending smarter is that it puts in you in a stronger position to protect your current marketing budget and demonstrate to decision-makers why the business shouldn’t let up on ad spending during a recession. (You may also want to cite recent research that found 60% of brands that increased their media investment during the last recession saw ROI improvements, and also suggests marketers who cut their ad spending during a recession risk losing 15% of their revenue.)
See this post for more tips on how to defend your marketing spend during a recession.
It isn’t just businesses that will tighten their belts in a recession — customers will do that, too, of course. Many are already starting to pull back on spending, and that doesn’t bode well for the U.S. economy, given that consumer spending accounts for about 70% of it.
Anxiety over potential job losses, rising inflation, and higher interest rates all combine to make the average consumer more likely to cut back on luxury and nonessential spending in the months ahead. Consumers may also adjust their overall spending habits during a prolonged downturn, shopping for bargains, seeking out discounts, and clipping coupons — even buying cheaper products with generic labels rather than their favorite brands.
It’s imperative for marketers to closely track consumer behavior to understand how spending patterns are changing and to create recession-sensitive messaging that will appeal to cost-conscious consumers. This is also an ideal time to ramp up efforts around listening to the voice of the customer (VOC), so you can track their thoughts and feelings about your products, services, and the customer experience you provide. VOC insights can help inform your recession marketing strategies and allow you to respond effectively or even anticipate customers’ needs and concerns amid uncertainty.
With all this emphasis on belt-tightening, it’s tempting for marketing to get into a promotion mindset in an effort to woo consumers during a downturn. The challenge here is that promotions condition consumers to only buy when there’s a promotion. And by relying on promotions, you’re essentially admitting to customers that your product or service was overpriced to begin with.
Promotions can actually lead to lower sales on regularly priced products or services, and they compress business margins. The ROI for promotions also tends to run low, so you need to achieve far higher sales of promotional items to make up the margin gap. So, avoid promotion fever, and instead, focus on messages of quality and value for money. Also, invest even more in delivering a standout customer experience that can help you retain customers when economic headwinds kick up harder.
Now, what about the upsides for businesses that opt to stay the course with or amplify their marketing efforts during a recession? Here are a few examples of potential benefits that companies can realize from this approach:
When your competitors pull back on their marketing spend, but you don’t, your business obviously has a better chance of standing out and earning new business. Also, when customers see your brand is actively marketing, they may take it as a sign that your business is strong and growing despite the recession. That may give them more confidence to do business with you, and try your products or services if they haven’t before (even if they may cost more than what your competitors offer).
Less competition in the marketplace can also mean less competition in the world of digital marketing as companies cut back on content marketing and SEO initiatives. Content marketing is a relatively low-cost way to build brand awareness and attract customers. However, because it takes time and effort to do it well, it can easily get pushed to the back burner during a recession.
Go against the trend by stepping up your SEO strategy while your competitors fall behind. Optimize tried-and-true content and create new content that can drive more, and more relevant, traffic to your website and make your brands more visible in search engine results pages (SERPs).
Recessions give many brands the chance to strengthen relationships with customers by reminding them of all their offerings. For example, a business that sells and repairs major appliances can expand its customer base during a recession by promoting its repair services — helping to offset business losses due to consumers postponing purchases of new appliances. And, when consumers are ready to buy a new appliance, they will be more likely to check out that business first. Plus, the business can proactively market new appliances to loyal customers when the time is right.
Setting up a preferred customer or loyalty program for existing customers can also help fortify brand loyalty and position your company to grow faster when the recession eases. After all, it’s always easier to sell to an existing customer!
Again, it’s important to keep in mind that recessions are temporary. Even better: They’re usually followed by a period of robust economic growth.
The longest recession in U.S. history, the Long Depression, lasted about five years, from 1873-1878, and was followed by a massive economic boom later dubbed the The Gilded Age. And the Great Recession of 2007-2009 was followed by a relatively solid but slow period of prolonged economic growth — until COVID-19 caused a sharp, but also short-lived, economic contraction in March 2020.
Companies that maintain an efficient marketing presence throughout a recession, and effectively plan to seize opportunities once the downturn subsides, can improve their market share and enhance long-term brand health. It’s also worth keeping in mind that some of the world’s most successful companies were founded during a recession, including Microsoft, Slack, and WhatsApp.
As you develop your recession marketing strategy, keep this checklist of do’s and don’ts handy. These recommendations, some of which were touched on above, can help you, your team, and your organization to power through the economic downturn that is likely to unfold sometime soon:
Fending off budget cuts and limiting a recession’s impact on marketing hinges on your ability to highlight your team’s full contribution to the company’s revenue generation. With Invoca’s call tracking and conversation intelligence software, your marketing team can gain crucial credit for conversions that occur as a result of phone calls. You get the full picture of attribution.
You can also use insight from Invoca to optimize your marketing strategies, reduce your customer cost per acquisition, and increase your return on ad spend (ROAS). Data from call tracking can also help you select more cost-effective keywords for paid search campaigns and display ads. The more information and insight you can glean from actual customers, the better positioned you will be to develop campaigns that will perform.
Request a personalized demo to learn more about how Invoca can help you spend smarter and achieve your marketing goals during a recession — and in any economy.
Want to learn more about how leading brands defend their marketing spend with Invoca? Check out these resources:
Download our Ultimate Guide to Reducing Wasted Marketing Spend to learn how you can lower your CPA while improving marketing campaign performance.