Recession Marketing: Down, But Not Out

The economy sucks. And you know the score.

Since the recession started in December 2007 — though it wasn’t officially declared until a year later — marketers have been under the gun to adapt their messaging as consumers change their attitudes and behaviors.

Consumers have lost faith in large institutions. It’s hard not to feel cheated after losing a job, watching a home value tank, or a 401(k) account evaporate. Learning about John Thain’s $1.2 million office renovation, bonuses at bailed out companies like AIG, and Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme provokes rage.

Researchers and others are dissecting on- and offline marketing campaigns, trying to see what works and what doesn’t in the new economy. “Consumers are taking a reappraisal of who they should trust and rely on,” said John Gerzema, chief insights officer for Young & Rubicam Group, while speaking at Search Engine Strategies NY. “Why would you believe in a brand if you don’t know it’s going to be around?” he asked, referring to the disappearance of such long-standing brands as Circuit City and Lehman Brothers.

As a result, he and others agree that new cultural values are driving new consumer behaviors in the so-called fear economy. For instance, Gerzema said “durable living” is a new consumer strategy — consumers are holding on to their cars longer, using more coupons, and heading to their local libraries to borrow books and DVDs.

And that has major implications for brands.

“People want to know they are being respected, their pain is being felt, whether or not you can do much about it,” said Jerry Zaltman, founding partner at Olson Zaltman Associates, at the Advertising Research Foundation’s annual conference this week in New York.

With those insights, let’s take stock of businesses and their responses to today’s economic realities by looking at some good, bad, and ugly ads.

Hyundai Assurance Comforts Consumers

Ads for the Hyundai Assurance program appealed to consumers, according to the Advertising Rating Company (ARC), a Los Angeles-based analytics firm. If someone purchases a Hyundai and loses her job, the automaker will make car payments for up to three months. “Wow! Unbelievable! That was one of the best ads I have ever seen. They have heart in a world that has gotten so cruel,” wrote one consumer surveyed by ARC.

Home, Not-So-Sweet Home Ads

Consumers surveyed by ARC were offended by ads from RE/MAX, a network of real estate agents. The ads that appeared on TV, YouTube, and Hulu suggested that now is the best time to buy and sell real estate. “RE/MAX is out of touch with reality. Don’t they know that people are hurting?” said one person, echoing comments others made.

A RE/MAX spokeswoman said the company wants to underline the need for consumers to use a professional real estate agent to navigate such a big purchase. Since the campaign launched a few months ago, the spokeswoman said the ads “have had a very positive response.”

Lost Money, Lost Trust

Financial services are in a precarious position to market their services. “I lost money and don’t want to hear anything,” one consumer told ARC when asked about a TD Ameritrade ad.

So what’s a financial services company to do?

“Greater transparency and provision of practical advice will go a long way in regaining their trust,” write Fred Geyer and Chiaki Nishino, partners at Prophet, a branding consultancy, in this analysis.

An example of a brand with a good response? “Charles Schwab,” Geyer wrote in an e-mail to me. He elaborated:

  • Was on the air within two weeks of the big declines in the market in December…almost a month before anyone else.

  • Message was simple: we know there is a problem, we don’t know all the answers, we are here to help.
  • Message was personal and delivered in a very accountable tone by Schwab himself. Broke away from existing campaign because of the importance of the issue.
  • Message has been followed up by return to current campaign with new themes that talk directly about the loss of retirement savings and what to do about it.

In contrast, Geyer observed, numerous big banks continued to run their existing campaigns that promised discounts on mortgages or low credit card rates. As a result, their messages weren’t relevant to what was going on in the economy.

Home Is Where the Hearth Is

On its Web site, food storage bag maker Ziploc features consumer tips on the amount of time food can be stored in the freezer, refrigerator, or cabinet shelf. “This is an interesting Web site because [Ziploc] is helping to make food last longer [and helping consumers] manage their household budgets,” said Gerzema. In the same vein, Campbell’s features a “savings center” that includes recipes for budget-friendly dinners and comforting casseroles.

Man’s Best Friend Shares Our Pain

Even our beloved pets haven’t escaped the impact of the economic downturn — and that’s clear from one dog food company’s Web site.

“At ALPO we believe it’s time to let dogs be dogs again…just check your sequined dog collar at the door,” reads ALPO’s site, which includes a coupon to buy one can of ALPO and get one free, download a dog poster, and share “overpampered” dog photos.

The Zen of the Singing Fish

A populist (née low-brow) ad for McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish shows that it doesn’t take a Happy Meal to make people happy. The TV ad, now a viral hit on YouTube, features a stocky man sitting in a garage. He’s munching on a Filet-O-Fish sandwich when he hears a mouthful from a singing rubber fish, a la Billy Bass, mounted on the garage wall. “Gimme back that Filet-O-Fish. Gimme that fish,” the fish sings out.

“The blogosphere is divided on whether the commercial is great or grating, but most agree that it does what a commercial jingle should do: It stays in your head, and…brings an odd craving to eat greasy fish sandwiches,” writes William Weir at “The Hartford Courant.”

So much for appealing to our primal instincts.

Does your company or client offer one of the best online marketing products or services? Nominate it now for one of the 2009 ClickZ Marketing Excellence Awards!

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