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Recession-ready marketing

Not since 2008 has the future been more uncertain. With the collapse of Lehman Brothers still fresh in the memory of most, the global economy is poised for another slowdown. The announcement of Brexit sent the Sterling Pound on a downward spiral to its weakest level since 1985. Closer to home, the Chinese economy is showing signs of slowing, with the economy growing only at a rate of 6.7 per cent during the first quarter of 2016, thus prompting the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to cut its growth forecast from 3.4 per cent to 3.2 per cent. Analysts in Singapore are not optimistic either, cutting their growth forecast for Singapore from 2.2 per cent to 1.9 per cent, making it the weakest projected annual GDP growth since 2009.

Yet for marketers facing the prospect of budget cuts, it is not all doom and gloom. Brands are still able to thrive despite the gloomier outlook, with the likes of Heineken Malaysia bucking the global trend. Heineken is positioned as a premium brand, and when purchasing power contracts, consumers tend to seek cheaper alternatives. Yet in the worst of times, Heineken still managed a 53 per cent growth in ‘High Value Drinkers’ – individuals who almost always only drink Heineken. Is this simply brand loyalty at its best or is there some secret brew for success? The answer, in a nutshell, lies in meaningful engagement – a vital currency.

Integrate and aggregate
Before I get into the specifics on how brands can thrive amidst a challenging economic landscape, it important to understand the various outreach avenues available, what it entails and how brands should optimise the use of each avenue. There are mainly four avenues available to marketers – paid media, owed media, earned media and shared media.

Paid media refers to traditional advertising tools, such as print and radio advertisements, as well as online banner advertisements. Owned media includes content and platforms that the brand has complete control over such as corporate websites and blogs, newsletters as well as brochures. Earned media can be loosely defined as publicity created by a third party and has not been paid for. Word-of-mouth communication and product reviews are examples of earned media. Shared media would include social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Though these communication channels are owned and managed by the brand, they often depend on influences to amplify the message.

Marketing investments are often impacted by recessionary trends and almost always bear the brunt of cost-cutting measures. The trick to cope with such pressures is to integrate and aggregate. Instead of the solitary use of such communication avenues, brands could utilise budgets for paid media in search engine optimisation (SEO), directing traffic to corporate webpages. Money could also be spent on social channels, to ensure that the messages reached the intended target audience.

In May, PSB Academy, Singapore’s leading institution for higher education, launched a new omni-platform campaign, #psbgoplaces, which made use of students and lecturers as ambassadors. 6 weeks into the campaign, the Academy saw an impressive 14 per cent increase in leads generated over the same period last year. Unique visits to the PSB Academy website also increased by 50 per cent and PSB Academy’s Facebook page was propelled to pole-position, by engagement rates, among its competitors during the campaign.

Case in point: Marketers need to be fully cognisant of the journeys that their audiences undertake, and be comfortable with harnessing multiple platforms and touch points along this journey to entice, excite and engage.

Earned influence takes the wheel
The rise in popularity of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and even Medium, have reduced the barriers to entry, allowing brands to interact directly with their end-users. In the jostle for consumer dollar during recessionary periods, consumers are often bombarded with messages from many differing brands. What practitioners often fail to realise is that there is a threshold to the amount of information that consumers can absorb and that brands need to have a unique voice in order to stand out from the crowd.

Practitioners need to understand the art and science of building relationships with their consumers. Through these relationships, practitioners earn the right to join conversations, influence them and change attitudes and perceptions. Earned influenced, or the understanding on how to build and deepen relationships and change perceptions, is what would enable brands to stand out from the crowd.

One way to build a relationship is through the use of stories. Research indicates that reading a detailed description, such as stories and metaphors, stimulated the brain, while reading factual statements did not. The neurological regions stimulated when reading are the same regions stimulated when an individual encounters an experience.

Thus brand stories would resonate more with consumers as compared to traditional marketing positioning. Through the use of tools such as thought leadership commentaries and blogs, consumers get a chance to experience for themselves what exactly the brand is about.

Autonomy through automation and data
I had the pleasure of listening to Shantanu Dasgupta, Regional Planning Director of ADK Global, who spoke at an event at PSB Academy about ‘Glory during gloom – advertising during an economic downturn’. His speech was peppered with rich insights, and one theme struck a chord with me. Which is the importance of research. According to Shantanu, it has been proven that research has been effective at yielding fresh opportunities in new market segments, allows for better budget allocation between the different marketing channels, as well as investments into new technologies are some areas of research that marketers can consider, particularly during an economic downturn.

Data is the new oil. The first dollar that a marketer should spend is on research. This is never truer than in an economic slowdown, when customers are reluctant to part with their money. Data can be leveraged to drive sharper insights and more convincing measurements. As David Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising said: ‘Never stop testing and your advertising never stops improving’.

The future has never been more uncertain. Yet with a better understanding of the multiple platforms we have at our disposal, a boom in consumer data, and innovative tech applications that lend accountability and amplification to the art of marketing, industry practitioners are today better equipped than ever before to take on these challenges, inspire creativity, and effectively drive business outcomes.

Marcus Loh

Marcus Loh is currently Vice President of Brand, Marketing and Corporate Communication at one of Singapore's leading education institutions, PSB Academy. Marcus is an accredited practitioner with the Institute of Public Relations, Singapore and he has held a variety of appointments in public affairs, media relations and brand strategy for the private and public sectors including Tableau Software and the United Nations Singapore programme for the International Year of Co-operatives.