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Advertising In a Downturn Is a Balancing Act

Advertising is never static.

Your competitors are relentless in their thirst to gain market share at your expense. Awareness of evolving dynamics of your market is mandatory.

Look at JetBlue. Their position has always been the budget airline that gives you more.

Then along came JetBlue Basic. Same leather seats. Same free videos. But no cancellations. No endless free snacks. Last guy on the plane.

Why Basic? Because there are fliers, business and otherwise, who prefer rock-bottom prices over endless chips and pretzels. Large flocks of them were flying over to bare-bones airlines like Frontier and Spirit. JetBlue was feeling like an empty nester when it came to those travelers.

So, what did JetBlue do? It adjusted its strategy and flapped its pricing wings to attract them.

JetBlue reacted in 2019, long before the current Corona-driven economic downturn. Many financial wizards on Wall Street who scrutinize the airline industry with hawk-like eyes believed that JetBlue reacted late in the game with Basic.

Smart Car advertising started out smart. It had a clear vision of its target audience: urban hipsters, lower to mid-twenties, city dwellers for whom finding a parking space is as rare as finding a gold Kruggerand on  the pavement, and parking tickets are more common than city pigeons.  The smart car fit the need where there is limited parking environment, and its fuel frugality fit the need for the frugal urban hipster who is environmental minded. It attacked the sub-compact market with a design that is as “cool” as its urban hipster audience.

And it demonstrated that with smart ads that stressed its convenience, frugality, and personality.

With all that, their sales were slower than expressway traffic during rush hour.

So Smart Car adjusted its advertising strategy and execution to remove the barrier to sales: concerns about safety. Letting the world know that it meets the highest standards of front and rear body crashes. Cool.

If advertising cannot remain static, it holds true even more so in an economic downturn.

For one, consumers do not remain static. Free-spending consumers clench tightly on to their hard-earned earnings. They are more cautious. More thoughtful about their buying decisions.

That cautious attitude rests on a quicksand of fear and insecurity about the economic future. How long will they be able to hold their finances above water? How long will the downturn last?  How will it affect their income?  How will they pay their mortgage? They wake up to uncertainty; they go to sleep to uncertainty.

In a downturn, you cannot blithely go along with your previous ad strategy. A new reality has set in and your advertising must adjust to that reality.

You begin by understanding the adjustments your customer is making. Adjustments in his spending registers at your cash register. But there is a more important adjustment that is not so obvious. The adjustment he is making in his values.

All commerce is essentially a perception of values. The buyer places a value on his hard-earned earnings. He exchanges those earnings for something he feels is of at least equal value. When the economy rolls merrily along, his perceived value follows one track. When the economy turns bleak, his values reflect that change.

You need to evaluate the fundamentals of your advertising strategy:

  • Unique Selling Proposition (USP): How does your product differ? What unique benefit does it provide that is important to the consumer that they cannot get elsewhere? In the downward slope of the economy, is your unique benefit still important and still attractive to the consumer? An example is the health benefit of organic foods. Are its higher costs still a benefit when measured against the lower cost of non-organic foods? Are consumers still consumed by the status acquired through designer fashions? Or did their values change, and status labels no longer confer status?

 

  • Positioning: How they perceive your product, what position does it hold in their minds? Toyota and Maytag as examples were perceived as category leaders when it comes to reliability. No need for frequent trips to the mechanic or calls to the repairman. Great position for a downturn. But with the warranties available with other cars, other appliances, is reliability as much of a competitive factor, even in a downturn? You have to carefully scrutinize the relevancy of your position in today’s economy.

 

  • End Benefit: “What’s in it for me?” Referring to the truth I had stressed in a previous column – “No one buys a quarter-inch bit. They buy a quarter-inch hole.” No one buys an expensive smartphone because of the screen pixels. They buy it for the great photos that bring them lasting pleasure. End benefits need to be measured by what they physically deliver, i.e., a quarter inch hole, and what they emotionally deliver, i.e., lasting pleasure. In a downturn, seismic shifts take place on their perception of meaningful end benefits.

These are the fundamental building blocks of your marketing strategy and creative execution, whether in your print ads, web site, or online marketing. You need to do an audit on your online marketing, including your web site, SEO, PPC, and social media, to see whether they are still effective?

In my last column I included the Harvard Business Review Consumer Chart. On the assumption that some readers may have missed it, or did not save it, I am including it again.

It charts the adjustments in the purchasing habits that the four different groups of consumers make during a downturn. The chart is an excellent starting point to evaluate your USP, Positioning and End Benefit vis-a=vis their adjustments. You should also be speaking to your customers to hear first-hand how they perceive your product/service in today’s economic climate.

A note of caution. When adjusting your marketing strategy and advertising message to meet the new realities, you need to maintain your credibility with your current customer base. The core values you provided still must be maintained.

JetBlue introduced Basic to meet the wants of the low-budget flier, but it still holds true to its advertised promise of “You, Above All.” The budget flier still enjoys the leather seats and many other signature JetBlue amenities.

Smart Car underlined its safety in its ads, but it still focused on its economic frugality, convenience and “cool.”

Adjusting your advertising is a balancing act that must be perfectly balanced. Do it correctly and you are likely to see sharp upturns in your sales charts even during the downturn.

 

Marketing Caveat 1: All marketing efforts fall into the category of hishtadlus and hence should follow proven marketing principles. Ultimate success is b’Yad Hashem.

 

Chanina Katz has over two decades experience in major Madison Ave. ad agencies developing highly successful strategies and award-winning campaigns for such blue-chip clients as Colgate, RJ Reynolds, Hilton, Home Depot, General Mills, KFC and many others in a wide variety of package goods and services businesses. He provides marketing services for a range of businesses, from start-ups to major corporations. He lectures on marketing and creativity. He can be reached at Bullseyemarketing1@gmail.com.