What’s Appropriate in Recession-Era Marketing?

Doing the talking-head TV thing earlier this week, Donny Deutsch asked David Kiley of “BusinessWeek” and me whether advertisers should acknowledge that times are tough in their consumer messages.

Hell, yeah. Advertisers are supposed to connect with their customers, to elicit feelings of empathy and identification (at least, to the extent one can achieve that with toothpaste or laundry detergent). In a weird twist of irony, the recession may even make messaging easier because it puts literally everyone on the same page. Employed or unemployed, worker, student, housewife, or retiree, everyone’s hurting.

There’s an elephant in the room, in case you haven’t noticed. Brands, products, and services that can position themselves as necessary and relevant, comfortable, environmentally friendly, wholesome, and nurturing have a real edge in this environment.

And as Aegis Media CEO Sarah Fay pointed out in a discussion we had earlier in the week, economic downtimes present very real opportunities for product launches into a marketplace where competitors have often become quieter, thus opening up more room for the noise factor.

Just make certain you’re making the right kind of noise. In an era when those who can still afford to shop are doing so in secret, it’s time to pull back on the sell that promises luxury, exclusivity, or indulgence.

Yet some advertisers soldier on, oblivious to the fact that Rome is burning. Clearly, account planning had gone beyond the point of no return, the only possible explanation for the oxymoronic ubiquity of Visa’s Black Card campaign:

    The Black Card is not for everyone. In fact, it is available to only 1% of U.S. Residents to ensure the highest caliber of personal service is provided to every Cardmember.

The message’s positioning of the high-net-worth individual at this time is insulting. But tempered, perhaps, by Visa’s big out-of-home push. When I see this campaign in the subway, first I’m shocked, then I laugh a little about Visa’s hopes to reach that exalted one percent on the Queens-bound F train.

The Medium, Not Just the Message

There’s only one advertising channel solidly on the upswing these days: search. Hypertargeted to user intent, a solid search engine marketing campaign is self-financing, so what’s not to like? Print advertising is withering on the vine — and planned postal rate hikes in May couldn’t be more ill-timed for an industry that’s beginning to appear almost beyond redemption.

Television is familiar, a source of comfort and reassurance for tree-hugging advertisers, particular consumer packaged goods. And interactive channels other than search are holding their own, if not thriving. As Fay confirms, familiarity is soothing in troubled times, even to advertisers. It’s back to banners and e-mail and less experimentation with flashy, new gee-whiz formats, placements, and technologies.

Despite layoffs in media buying and planning departments and increasing conservatism among advertisers, some may stand to benefit in this climate. Over a recent lunch, Madison Avenue Consultants president Wendy McHale told me her firm is cautiously optimistic of having not just a good but a great year. With growing layoffs, someone’s got to assume media responsibilities. Firms like hers could stand to benefit.

Advertisers are also advised to go social, to think more “marketing” and less “advertising” when budgets are stretched to the breaking point. Over half of this country’s leading retailers have already established a presence on Facebook, for example (and at considerably less expenditure than a Super Bowl spot). There’s blogging, online video, and participatory chatter, all of it in the zero-cost budgetary realm.

The going’s gotten tougher, but that’s no reason to lose share of voice. Just make certain the message, products, and services you’re vocalizing about come through in messaging appropriate to these tough times.

Rebecca is off today. Today’s column originally ran on January 30, 2009.

How do high-performance brands achieve branding goals while increasing ROI? Join us on Wednesday, October 7, 2009, at 1 p.m., for a free Webinar to learn how you can add transparent CPL advertising to complement your existing banner and search campaigns, and round out your media plan.

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