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​Marketing in an Inflationary Era: Lessons from Recessions​

It all feels a little too familiar. After two years of the pandemic forcing brands to rethink their brand voice drastically during a time of international crisis, the country’s prospects had, at least in our hopes, finally started to look up. Now, as the country braces itself for life without restrictions, millions of households are being confronted with a new crisis: inflation is at a 30-year high, the tax burden on low-income families is increasing, and shortages continue to rage

How should brands react to this new trident of troubles? Fortunately – or most likely, unfortunately – we’ve all been here before. From the Black Wednesday recession of the early 1990s to the global credit crunch of 2008, brands have been adapting to changing consumer scenarios for decades. Here are four lessons that should prove valuable for marketers today:

  1. Keep advertising. The first lesson is as simple as it is clichéd. As the oft-repeated David Ogilvyadage goes, “When times are good, you should advertise. When times are bad, you must advertise.” Indeed, while it may prove tempting to slash advertising budgets, the damage caused by switching off media takes years to repair. Take McDonald’s, whose decision to cut advertising during the 1990s recession led sales to decline by 28%. For Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, this proved a prime opportunity to pounce on McDonald’s hiatus, with both increasing revenues dramatically.
  2. Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. Brands’ longstanding tones of voice often go out of the window during times of crisis. One of the earliest casualties of the 2008-09 recession was Howard Brown, Halifax’s chirpy – if polarising – branch employee, whose endearing smile was deemed ill-fitting for the financial woes of the population. While the current cost of living squeeze is not universal, brands should still ensure their messaging does not alienate large swathes of their audience.

Conversely, while it may not always be appropriate, humour is often a healer in times of shared misfortune. During the 1970s inflationary crisis – with inflation rates dwarfing those of today – Campbell’s Soup’s US campaign famously instructed concerned citizens to put their money into ‘chicken stocks’. Such humour can prove particularly apt for brands with low price points, and some fast-food brands across the pond are already borrowing from the Campbell’s playbook.

  1. Prioritise brand building. With brands and consumers alike in their financial worries, it may appear logical to aim for short-term sales boosts over long-term strategic goals. This approach is unsustainable, however, and even ill-advised while shortages continue to plague supply chains. Rather, brands should look to drive affinity and remind their audiences that they will still be around when times are better. Guinness’s St Patrick’s Day campaigns during the Covid-19 lockdowns are a recent example of this: at a normally critical time for the drinks industry, Guinness behaved soberly in encouraging togetherness and emphasising the philanthropic efforts of the business.