How to market in a recession

Are we in a recession? Maybe, maybe not. However, let's assume that the U.S. economy is in a recession and that as marketers we need to work within that reality. Here's how to thrive in tough times.


The world is changing before out eyes and tough times call for innovative strategy. It’s time to energize your marketing program and stand your ground with regard to the importance of holding on to budget dollars. Here’s a five step plan to stay in the lead.

Spend smarter
You may have to spend less on marketing. Not because marketing should be cut first or most (it most certainly should not), but because your company may cut budgets across the board. In fact, by showing how you intend to spend smarter, you will make it easier to fight for your resources.

By “spend smarter” I mean create a clear-cut justification for the investment. While you won’t always be able to measure the ROI (this is marketing, after all), you can create a compelling business case for each investment. Then, when it comes time to justify the investment, you will have established sound business reasoning behind it. And that’s what the CEO and CFO need to see in a recession.

Double down on your current customers
Sure, it’s more fun to get new customers, but it’s more practical in a downturn to provide more value (and get more in return) from your current customers.

When customers make decisions in a downturn, they’re more likely to go with a trusted source. If they’re more likely to go with you, then you want to make it easier and more obvious to them to go with you. Market to them. Enable your sales team to be more effective with them. Ask current customers what they need from you.

Care for them, and they will be even more likely to stick with you if the going gets tough.

Outsmart your competitors
You have an opportunity in a downturn to win market-share from your competitors.

If you pay close attention to what’s happening in your target market and how customers are reacting to a recession, you can act early and often with changes in product (if you can change it quickly), price, and positioning (especially as perceived needs change).

For example, in the last technology downturn, software companies became very creative in their pricing schema, creating many variations of software as a service (SaaS) that enabled them to sell when their competitors were stuck in an old paradigm.

Invest in growing market segments
In every downturn there are market segments that grow faster than others. It’s your job as a marketer to identify these segments, and determine whether you can develop business in them.

These may be segments you’re already selling to, but not particularly focused on; or they may represent new segments – and new opportunities for your company. At the same time, you will want to reduce your investments in the segments that will take the biggest hit in the downturn.

Fight for resources
It’s marketing’s responsibility to drive strategic issues. In a recession, this becomes even more important.

A knee-jerk reaction in a company where the CMO is not deeply involved in strategy often means a disproportionate cut to marketing budgets and people. In turn, marketing plays a lesser role. This extremely inefficient pendulum-swing of dollars and people typically results in being caught flat-footed and losing out to competitors very shortly after the cuts are made.

It’s marketing’s responsibility to fight for its resources. Producing results will help you win that battle.

Author: Glenn Gow founded the marketing strategy and implementation consulting firm, Crimson. Prior to that, he worked in sales and marketing at Oracle and Bell Atlantic (now Verizon).