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Marketing in a recession: Message from the front lines

A few weeks ago I conducted a marketing survey of senior executives across a range of businesses such as automotive, pharmaceuticals, toys, home remodeling, consumer electronics and retail.

I wanted to learn if there were common themes in the way a diverse group marketers was navigating the current recession (depression?).

Not surprisingly, all marketers are hurting and nearly every segment of their business is down. Lack of credit is affecting consumers and businesses alike. High priced premium segments, which seemed unaffected at first, have caved. Consumers are saving money by trading down to a lesser alternative or waiting for deep discounts on the products they desire. B2B purchases are drying up as companies cut CapEx budgets. There is a “slash and burn” mentality to marketing budgets.

But there are some bright spots as well.

Products and services that appeal to the consumer’s “cocooning” instinct – e.g., entertain at home, family games – are showing some resiliency.

Toys receiving heavy TV support seem to be holding up because parents may not want to scrimp on giving their kids what they want for Christmas.

Brands that feature a broad price range -- e..g, high/medium/low tiers, value bundles, etc. -- seem to be holding customers in the brand franchise.

Several executives reported that they are counting on their recent investments in new innovations to help weather the storm. “New” still attracts interest and curiosity.

However, if there is one single theme that is consistent across these marketers it is this: Get closer to your best customers.

Companies such as Allergan and Kohler, which sell through intermediaries, are investing in service and training to maintain loyalty among the people who recommend their products to end-users. For example, Allergan runs outreach programs designed to train physicians be better business people and run a more profitable medical practice.

Best Buy and Volvo are appealing to their best customers with more 1:1 marketing, private shopping events and loyalty incentives.

Land Rover and Sony are turning to smarter database marketing efforts.

Mattel is using street teams to put its electronic games into the hands of its priority customers.

Navistar is evaluating using more outbound telemarketing to better qualify and prioritize sales prospects.

I recently heard a quote that said, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” This captures the mood of theses marketers. The intensity of this recession is compelling many companies to reassess all aspects of their marketing plans.

Done right, many of the tactics they are using to survive today may continue to frame their strategies when the economy picks up again in the future. (And it will pick up again.)

Focus on your best customers. Do not take them for granted. Lavish them with appreciation and respect during the good times as well.

Focus your media spending. Digital media is the new branding medium, not just a tactical and transactional medium. Use a mobile call to action to transform all offline advertising into opt-in, interactive media.

Focus on the products in your portfolio that truly matter. Don’t get too broad and scattered. If a product isn’t delivering profitable growth, loyalty or a strategic halo for the brand, don’t waste precious resources even in good times.