Marketing in a downturn


Published on: January 2023

Written by: Rene Groeneveld, Maggie Bertrand

Every downturn sends uncertainty rippling throughout an organization. The feeling can be especially acute within marketing departments, as budgets are cut and colleagues and clients brace for recession, knowing no two downturns are the same.

There’s good news, though. A downturn can be a time for marketers to shine, to improve cross-functional collaboration, and to build or strengthen their status as an advisor to the business. 

The key is to avoid some common mistakes and, even better, seize often-overlooked opportunities.  

Do not panic or over-flex 

Organizations frequently react to downturns by adding rushing to pile on new strategies, initiatives, tasks. Teams end up overloaded with the new and lose sight of what was already working or not working. Resist the impulse to over-flex, and instead, calmly consider how to best use your resources: 

  • With your team, explore how you can be 20 percent better, rather than trying to be 80 percent different and better.  
  • Let go of anything that isn’t effective and recommit to campaigns and initiatives that get results. Set a manageable pace and streamline the workflow. Avoid throwing too much at your team, which only leads to confusion, frustration, and misalignment when you can afford it least. 
  • Deepen your understanding of the customer. Recessions hit every customer and every company differently. Customers might suddenly behave differently (e.g., from innovation interest to cost focus). Recognizing how each client is affected builds trust over the long term. Also, remember that many industries thrive during a downturn (think tech or pharmaceuticals and healthcare in 2020). Identify clients that are still doing well and intensify your marketing efforts to them.  
  • Increase alignment with other business units and the C-suite. Collaborate to link marketing’s efforts with the those of sales, enablement, product development, etc., coordinating with their business cycles and using data points to drive decisions and messaging.    
Get back to the fundamentals 
  • Continue branding efforts.  
  • Reinforce your brand identity. Begin by reengaging employees in company culture, mindset, and brand, an identity they know and are proud to represent. In a downturn, organizations sometimes soften their messaging. That’s a mistake. This is a time to energize your organization around reinforcing your brand identity to customers and potential customers. It’s time to get louder. 
  • Shift your messaging but protect your authenticity. Marketers must revisit their messaging and make changes that resonate with their target customer, whose own circumstances have changed. The danger: overreacting and being inauthentic to their brand, latching on to the latest buzzwords or mimicking what other companies are doing. The creates confusion and lowers customer engagement. Be authentic and build your customers’ confidence in your brand as something they can trust, even in times of uncertainty. 
  • Watch your language. When a downturn forces budget cuts, every cost comes under greater scrutiny. Improve the language you use to demonstrate how your product or service is not an expense, but an investment, an investment your customers can’t afford to not make. Draw attention to the value they’re getting, not the transaction.  
  • Embrace sustainability as a brand advantage. In a recent survey, 91 percent of US CEOs said they were convinced a recession was on its way; 59 percent of those executives said they were preparing for a downturn by pausing or reconsidering environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives [i].  Research reveals this short-sighted tactic will likely backfire:

    “A review of company performance during the last recession also suggests that investments in sustainability can pay off during difficult times: between 2006 and 2010, the top 100 sustainable global companies experienced significantly higher mean sales growth, return on assets, profit before taxation, and cash flows from operations compared to control companies” [ii].

In a recession, marketers need to promote the importance of a strong sustainability strategy internally—and confidently tout that strategy externally.  

  • Revisit customer segmentation and the customer buying cycle.
  • Identify those customers for whom what your organization provides is critical even in a downturn, or especially in a downturn. Increase your marketing efforts to those segments.
  • Reexamine your customer’s buying cycle to understand what changes are happening during a downturn. This will allow you to make sure your marketing aligns with sales, enablement, and customer service—in sync with the buying process and focused on achieving results for the customer.
  • Revamp your multi-channel and omni-channel marketing strategy. Even in the best of times, multi-channel marketing isn’t about playing in every channel. It’s about aligning to customers’ preferences. This becomes even more crucial in a sluggish economy. Prioritize the channels that either continue to bring in potential customers despite the downturn or that are best suited to reach those customer segments you’ve decided to direct your efforts toward during the downturn. 
Focus on the long term 

In a downturn, organizations understandably default to survival mode, anxious that today’s slowdown could be tomorrow’s crisis. However, research from the Great Recession confirms that companies thrive during a downturn when they don’t over-rotate on short-term tactics. 

“There is also evidence of the benefits to maintaining a focus on the long term, even during a period of crisis: companies with a long-term orientation achieved higher annual growth and total shareholder return (TSR) than their counterparts during the previous recession” [iii].

For marketing leaders, this is the time to keep your eyes—and strategy—focused on the future. Use the downturn as a trigger to implement long-term initiatives and changes that will result in more data-driven, evidence-based, and efficient marketing.

While thriving during a recession is never easy, it doesn’t have to be complicated. By simply avoiding the temptation to over-flex and fixate on the short term and going back to the fundamentals, marketing can make a downturn their time to shine.  

[i] KPMG 2022 U.S. CEO Outlook. Aug. 19, 2022.

[ii], [iii] “Five Ways a Sustainability Strategy Provides Clarity During a Crisis,” by Thomas Singer., July 6, 2020.

Ready to start a conversation?

Want to know how BTS can help your business? Fill out the form below, and someone from our team will follow up with you.