How To Use a Recession as a Force for Marketing Good

James Erskine – CEO Rocket. James is an entrepreneur and has over 20 years of media, marketing and strategy, content and digital experience. Having spent some of his early career advising brands working with the radio and content teams, he currently heads up Rocket, a youth and family content and marketing business dedicated to helping brands better understand and better engage those audiences.

In 2022, the UK saw a big cut in toy prices as retailers slashed prices to help get rid of surplus stock. The cost of living crisis took hold and consumers were no longer willing to pay higher prices for non-essential items. As reported in the Daily Telegraph recently, 44 percent of toys dropped in price between January and November 2022[1].  Playmobil products, for example, have fallen an average of 22 percent since the beginning of 2022.

Toys and Games are not recession proof, but they can be resilient. In America, if we look at the performance of Mattel and Hasbro, they posted year over year increases in sales in seven out of nine recession years[2]. Brands that have an important and useful role in children and parents lives can and will survive and thrive.

As we look ahead to 2023 we know it’s going to be a hard year. Toy brands and retailers might assume they will be especially hard hit. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused long-lasting instability in financial markets and the entire world seems to be braced for yet another recession amidst a cost of living crisis. This means companies everywhere are forced to evaluate budgets and see where savings can be made.

There is an age old apocryphal point that the first thing to be cut during a recession is advertising and marketing. Working for a marketing and content business as I do, I would have a contrary and some might claim, self-serving, counter-argument.  But let me explain why I think businesses should think before they act.

During the first two lockdowns of the pandemic, we worked with a number of brands to help them use their marketing budget as a force for good.  What happened is that those involved came out of those slower periods with more positivity and better results. 

Cutting back on marketing during a recession stems from the beliefs that marketing is a cost centre and that turning it off has little impact on long-term sales, but research tells a different story. Marketing during economic uncertainty can actually cost less and reap bigger rewards.

The truth is, for those able to continue spending on advertising as a business, there are huge opportunities created by recessions.

While your competitors are hitting the brakes are marketing budgets this is your key opportunity to gain a share of voice.  After six months without marketing, overall brand awareness to an average consumer decreases by 24%.  It’s yours to take. With today’s advertising technology, your investments can be smart and calculated. It can result in short and long-term gains.

This is not to say that marketing should not shift its focus slightly, however. During the pandemic, we encouraged brands and organisations to approach their target audiences with tact and to be useful where possible. For example, children’s books and magazines could be repositioned and repackaged as the perfect antidote to too much children’s screen time.

When working with attractions that were closed during the lockdowns we were challenged to make brands useful in real life.  We created one post lesson plans in partnership with the London Sea Life Centre to help parents with home schooling. We also created a series of online meeting ‘backgrounds’ – both static and moving video – for people to pretend to be under the sea when having their family or work video calls. Not necessarily purpose-led marketing or anything with a particularly lofty aim, but a reason to keep The Sea Life Centre at the heart of conversations real people were having. 

We are lucky enough to work with Immediate Media on the marketing of their children’s magazines. With a strategy that kept a laser-like-focus on parents’ social media, we also directed audiences through to series of physical events. It meant Bluey Magazine and CBeebies Art Magazine, alongside others, were positioned as a driving force to get families outside together and to be creative together – anything that creates a lasting legacy for the brand equity to be built around in future years and most-likely into this next recession.

Data can do an awful lot of good and offer insight and understanding but I would urge everyone with a focus on how a brand behaves to think of what *feels* right.  Whereas the most natural and obvious thing may be to crow about new record low prices, if brands can find strategies to make people *feel* warmer, it could be these strategies that will be remembered during a recession and long after it.



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