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Strategies for marketing through a downturn

Strategies for marketing through a downturn

Posted on: July 17, 2023

We face a perfect storm. Increasing energy costs, inflation, supply-chain crises, war in Europe, and a Covid hangover are battering economies.

As a result, marketing budgets are under yet more pressure. Every penny of advertising investment has to be justified.

And the best way to justify marketing spend is with robust, empirical evidence.

So that’s what we’ve assembled here: a short library of thoughtful and thought-provoking papers and articles by experts who can help brands navigate and weather the economic storms.

Why should you continue to invest in brand advertising if you can? How should marketing spend change? What opportunities does the challenge of recession offer (for those able to take them)? 

This compendium will answer those questions and many more.

Peter Field

Advertising in a recession – long, short or dark?
Marketing effectiveness expert Peter Field’s guide to advertising best practice in a recession.

The case for advertising in a recession
With additional input from Orlando Wood and Jon Evans from System 1, a presentation of Peter Field’s guide to advertising best practice in a recession.

The drivers of marketing effectiveness – 7 principles of success
ThinkTV (Canada) webinar with Peter Field showing the role brand building plays in driving effectiveness, and the top considerations for marketers when developing a campaign, from building mental availability and engaging emotionally, to the importance of reach and the right media balance.

Why it’s important to keep advertising during a downturn
An overview from The Message of the key learnings from a ThinkTV (Canada) webinar with Peter Field.

Advertising in a downturn revisited
Peter Field, in association with the IPA, breaks down his latest research into what lessons from previous recessions still resonate today and explore how brands should act during the Coronavirus crisis.  A 2022 update of work originally published in 2020.

Ehrenberg-Bass Institute

A marketing guide: what to do in a recession
A paper from Ehrenberg-Bass providing guidance to marketers about what to do in a recession.

When Brands Go Dark: A Replication and Extension
Paper by Ehrenberg-Bass in the Journal of Advertising Research (JAR).  This academic paper is based upon a longitudinal analysis of 365 brands in 22 categories.  Looking at what happens when brands stop spending, the study found that market shares of brands without advertising declined, on average, at a steady rate year over year (declining by 10 percent after one year, 20 percent after two years, and 28 percent after three years relative to the last advertised year).   Market share declines were more common and substantial among small brands and those losing share before advertising ceased.

Mark Ritson

Ritson’s recession playbook: 9 steps marketers should take to survive the dark times ahead
Marketing Week article in which Mark Ritson advises marketers to continue their brand building efforts: “You maintain the long of it because its impact is delayed but substantial and it will kick in exactly when you need it as the recession ends.”

The best marketers will be upping, not cutting, their budgets
Marketing Week article from Mark Ritson in which he argues that it may seem like a paradox, but recessionary periods actually provide fertile grounds for marketers to grow their brand’s market share if they’re prepared to think long-term.

Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA)

Les Binet:  How to navigate your brand through turbulent economic times
Presentation by Les Binet (adam&eveDDB) at the IPA Effwork Global 2022 conference reviewing some of the key factors buffeting consumer markets and providing a framework for planning marketing under conditions of unusual economic uncertainty.

Research Companies and Consultancies (Various)

Ebiquity: advertising through a recession
Report from Ebiquity looking at past recessions and outlining that although it is tempting for brands to cut ad spend during a recession, the evidence from recent periods of sustained economic decline suggests that it is a false economy to do so.

IPSOS:  media strategies in turbulent times
Ipsos’s modelling consultancy outline media opportunities during and after the COVID-19 global pandemic (& advise brands to maintain brand equity through media continuity).

Harvard Business Review: don’t cut your marketing budget in a recession
Article by academics discussing that whilst companies tend to cut marketing in a recession, firms that maintain their marketing spend while reallocating it to suit the context – be it in product developing, advertising and communication, or pricing – typically fare better than firms that cut their marketing investment.

Magic Numbers:  What works in a recession? New data on the strategies that succeed
Article from Magic Numbers outlining their analysis of the Advertising Research Community (ARC) database.  The work looked at different strategies for marketing in a recessionary period and found that the advice to ‘don’t go dark’ was too blunt.   The analysis identified categories where stopping spending was the correct strategy; and others where increasing spend was a very effective approach.

WARC (Behind Paywall)

What happens if I stop advertising?
Report from WARC summarizing a number of pieces of research about what happens if brands stop advertising.  The report discusses areas such as:  What are the consequences, in both the short and long run, of a brand going dark?  What is the trade-off between maintaining versus regaining brand equity/market share?  What happens if I cut my budget in a recession versus keep advertising during a recession?

Maintaining share of voice is key in recessions
A short article from WARC looking at share of voice in recession.  It outlines that maintaining share of voice is critical for advertisers during a recession, both to stay front of mind among consumers in a downturn, and in order to position their brands in an optimal way for the recovery.

Building brand equity in an economic downturn: five tactics beyond numbers
Article by Simon Gregory (BBH) discussing five tactics to protect marketing budgets when facing an economic downturn.

What happens when brands go dark
Analysis from Kantar Millward Brown of the impact on brands of stopping TV advertising.


Race to the Top: How brands should respond to the cost of living crisis
ITV webinar outlining research from Dr Grace Kite (Magic Numbers) and a toolkit to help brands respond to the cost of living crisis

Recovery Budget Planner
Based upon specific historical data from previous downturns, as well as a number of industry economic predictions, ITV AdLabs and econometrician Dr Grace Kite (Magic Numbers), have developed a tool to forecast the likely effect on ROI from increasing or reducing your marketing investment during economically challenging times.