9/11 Was Then. This Is Now. What’s Marketing to Do?

The current economic crisis is a “once-in-a-century” event, as described by Alan Greenspan. We’re feeling it across all corners of the economy. The period following 9/11 had consumers fearing for their personal security, and they shifted their behavior and spending accordingly. This crisis has consumers fearing for their financial security.

Stock-market declines, credit tightening, job losses, mortgage troubles — consumer confidence has plunged. What we see now is not so much a shift, but a hesitation in consumer activity and spending altogether. It’s the consumers’ way of gaining control.

So what are companies to do — take cover and ride out the storm? Think about what happens in your own organization: Production scales back. Management cuts jobs. Finance tightens the reins. And marketing? Sure, the budgets get cut, but this is no time to hunker down. After all, marketing is the only group that can impact consumer demand. And now is the time. The rest of the organization needs you to step up.

Of course, that does not mean try to keep doing what you were doing. That’s crazy. But just cutting spending and canceling activities isn’t it, either. Your job isn’t to manage budgets and programs; it’s to bring in business.

Get smarter. Consumers have changed, and what you know and expect of them has changed. It’s not just that money is tight. Priorities have shifted, values are redefined, needs regress back to the basics, and desire conflicts with reality. Spend money on research now? Yes! Marketing that misses the mark is wasted.

It’s a particularly good time for ethnographic-based research. You can see and understand not just what’s happening in your category, but in your consumers’ lives — what they’re facing, how they’re coping, and how your brand can help. Our ethnographers are in the field right now, spending time with consumers, learning what’s different, gaining fresh insights, and finding ways to help our clients connect with consumers today.

Get creative. Not just with creative ads — get more creative with your proposition. Figure out what you can offer consumers (beyond a discount) that will make their lives better. If you think of the brand as the consumer’s friend, then what would that friend do in this situation? How can the brand fit in better? How can the brand help? Beyond the fear that consumers are feeling, they’re trading down, cutting back. The satisfaction and joy they once felt from shopping is not there. How can you help fill the gap, practically and emotionally?

Get direct. While we should never forget or forsake the brand, building the brand (awareness/image/equity) is not the top priority now. We need to generate business, now. You may not be a direct marketer, but you can certainly market directly. Ask your team: How can we craft a direct-selling proposition that catches attention, differentiates our brand and offering, and moves someone to act now? Utilize direct media — mail, e-mail, search/banners, DRTV, direct-response print or radio. Make the offer clear and compelling. Give them a reason to act. Plan the path to purchase and move them along that path. Lead them to your coupon, to your Web site, to a new microsite, to the store/aisle. Don’t stop moving them until you close the sale.

Get together. Collaborate with your channel partners — they’re hurting, too. Work together on getting creative and getting direct (see above). They’ll want you to buy into their circulars and other programs. Instead, get outside of that box and work together on ideas that haven’t been done to death. (Be sure to show up with some interesting ideas to get the ball rolling.)

Another great “get-together”: other brands. Everyone’s short on cash, yet looking for results. Brainstorm other brands that you can partner with to add value and creativity, and help reach your consumer. Look for brands that can offer something you can’t, and that can benefit from something you can provide. Done right, these collaborations multiply the power and results of the marketing effort while reducing the required cash outlay.

Get going. Remember, you’re the only one who can impact consumer demand, and at times like these, everyone is counting on you to do just that.

Marty Schwalbe is chief strategy officer of Engauge, who can be reached at MSchwalbe@engauge.com