How to market in a downturn

As businesses become gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic, marketing teams have been left with some tough decisions to make about the future of their marketing spend. PR and marketing manager Helen Ansell provides tips on how to market through a downturn and the importance of maintaining brand equity through a crisis.


Leveraging marketing to pull your business through a downturn

During a downturn, much like we are acutely experiencing with the outbreak of Covid-19, businesses tend to follow two types of behaviour. They either make knee jerk decisions, cancelling all of their planned activity, subscriptions and retained services, or they try to grin and bear it, with stoic optimism that it will all blow over in a few weeks.

Of course, this isn’t the first time we have faced a downturn. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), there has been four global recessions since WWII, with the most recent being in 2008. These economic events have led to research being conducted throughout the world into the impact of reduced marketing spend during a recession. Many of the studies reached the conclusion summarised by Peter Field, honorary fellow at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising:

“When cutting budgets in a recession, the short-term improvement in profitability was rapidly overtaken by a severe decline in profitability in the medium and long term”.

Peter Fader, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania also highlights that: “As companies slash advertising in a downturn, they leave empty space in consumers’ minds for aggressive marketers to make strong inroads.”

Continuing to market is absolutely vital for your business and in the long term it could cost double or even treble the investment, just to get back to where your brand value and business was before the downturn; that’s if a competitor hasn’t taken a share of your voice in the market.

Whichever category your business falls into, adversity is often the origin of some of the best ideas and creative thinking. So, here are some tips for riding out the storm, maintaining your brand’s value and rebounding with a solid foundation for even stronger marketing campaigns.


A hiatus is a perfect opportunity to realign your short, medium and long-term strategies. It gives you time to take a step back and reflect on what you have been doing and how effective it has been. Your strategy should be far-reaching and integrated with your PR, social media and sales team’s objectives.

Focus heavily on your existing customers

Even during hardship, the loyal customers should remain. If they weren’t already, they should be at the centre of everything you do. Existing customers need to be nurtured and feel that your product or service is something that they need and not just a ‘nice to have’, as priorities start to shift. These customers also offer an opportunity to extract more value without the associated costs and time spent acquiring new business.

Learn more about your customer base

In the absence of face-to-face contact, networking becomes somewhat problematic, but you can still build a strong understanding of your customer personas. To do this, start by looking at the recency, frequency and average value of your customer’s purchases, along with the medium through which they tend to seek your product or service.

This sort of lead management will help you identify opportunities or buying behaviours that may have gone unnoticed pre-Covid19 and will really refine your communications strategy. Once this research has been completed, take this opportunity to conduct a thorough cleanse of your database and segment accordingly. This will ensure all communications will generate maximum reach and returns now and in the longer term.

Consistent and timely communication

Act early. Communication is so important during this time. You can’t just pull down the shutters and block out the world. Customers need to know what your plans are from an operational perspective, how they can reach you and how they can acquire your goods and services.

Continuing to market via email will help you to stay front of mind and is relatively inexpensive compared to other tactics. For some B2B businesses, it may be more pertinent to continue communication via video conferencing and phone calls. If you have furloughed staff and are struggling for time, then utilising a PR & marketing agency can help keep your business present in the public domain.

Solution-based content

Solution based messaging appeals to prospects who are at the purchasing stage of their journey, which is where you can acquire business at a much lower cost. Here you should have a clear USP and communicate effectively why they should use your solution over your closest competitors. Conversely, thought leadership content tends to be directed at those who are still in the research phase.

Your tone of voice should strike the balance of being upbeat and positive, whilst also showing empathy and understanding for your customer’s circumstances. Offering extras like free delivery, flexible payment terms and a longer returns period will show commitment to giving your customers a great experience during a difficult time. Succumbing to big discounts will likely be less profitable and devalue your brand in the long term.

Optimise, optimise, optimise

With digital marketing now likely to be the predominant form of communication and promotion, you will be able to focus your attention on collecting valuable performance data and refine your messaging through A/B testing to hit those important KPIs.

It is also imperative to build and optimise your landing pages and your wider website to ensure you are getting the most bang for your buck. This is especially important if you are still doing paid advertising like PPC, search ads and social ads. These types of ads should give you higher quality leads as customers will either already be looking for related search terms or showing interest by clicking on your advertisements.

Negotiate better deals

During a downturn, some companies offer extra competitive pricing or scope for further negotiation. If you are in the optimistic category of the two aforementioned, then you may see an opportunity to secure a great deal for things like data. This will also have the positive compounding effect of helping keep businesses in business.

Internal upskilling

Use this period of quiet to conduct any upskilling of your internal marketing team. Often, we put training off because we are too busy and we feel in the moment that it is quicker to do it ourselves. Now is the chance to make your staff feel valued, ensure you have a backfill in skillsets during this uncertain time and improve staff productivity.

Businesses are facing a lot of challenges at the moment but try to find opportunities in hardship and focus on the longevity of your business, not the shorter-term bumps in the road.

The Cartwright Communications team is still – and will remain – open for business. If you need any support with your marketing or PR, get in touch with us today.

By Helen Ansell

Helen is a specialist in marketing and communications. She works to elevate a business’ brand through strategic planning, campaign activation and copy writing across both B2B and B2C sectors including telecommunications and consumer healthcare. She now supports clients within the construction industry.