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How a recession will shape marketing and social campaigns

A looming recession or economic downturn inevitably has an impact on how brands communicate and market themselves.

Every recession is different, and this year’s experience will be very different to 2008, and certainly to the recessions of the 80s and 90s. 

We look to the past to predict the future. People talk about how Nike doubled spend between 1989 and 1993 and Reebok slashed spend, and the outcome of each. The lesson then was to invest, to sell brand, not product. But does that lesson still apply? 

It’s hard to look to 1989 and apply what the world learned then to 2022. The environment was completely different. Consumers have far more channels and platforms vying for our attention than we had in previous recessions. Their focus is more divided than ever before. The beautiful, long-form, black and white series of films Nike created with Spike Lee featuring Michael Jordan were a stroke of genius, but they wouldn’t work now. They were created for a different world, of cinema and TV advertising, longer attention spans, massive reach. 

Little of that applies today. Digital and social media has split attention, reach and focus.

There are hoodies sold in H&M right now for TikTok stars with tens of millions of followers who most people walking past the store wouldn’t be able to name. Reaching the maximum number of people isn’t the goal any more, it’s reaching the right people who are going to buy your brand (or influence their friends, communities and networks to). It’s way more complicated than throwing money at the problem.  

There’s one lesson we can take away, though, and that’s how great content cuts through the noise. The kind of content people share and engage with organically, rather than forcibly. The kind of content that builds communities and influence. The kind of content that your fans create for you, because they love your brand even when times are tough. 

In practical terms, what does this mean? There are four things every brand should be doing right now to prepare for the coming recession: 

  1. Double down on organic social media. This is something my colleague Amy talks about in her post ‘Now’s the time for brands to return to their roots and embrace organic social media’.  There’s a place for paid, of course, but consumers are turning away from it. It’s becoming harder to reach people. 
  2. Refocus on community. Consumers are already starting to prioritise essentials like rent and mortgage payments, fuel and food, and cut back on non-essentials. Now’s the time for brands to focus on long-term community building so that when people are in a position to increase their spending again and focus on wants as well as needs, your brand will be top of their minds. Think like your consumers. What do they want from you right now? Build a community that supports them and gives them the type of content they want (more on this in another blog post) rather than simply marketing at them. 
  3. Refocus on the right formats. Our attention spans are getting shorter, and so is the content we want to consume. Look at what’s crushing it on social – reels not feed posts, video not images, TikTok not TV. 
  4. Measure what really counts. For me, that’s viral reach from real engagement, community growth, and through recommendations growing both trust and influence to purchase. We all trust recommendations from friends and family above all else (certainly above paid advertising). When people engage with content on social media, it shows up for their friends – and now it goes well beyond that, to reach people who are likely to engage even if they don’t follow you. 

Finally, let’s remember that while Nike did sell brand in the 90s recession, it also sold a lot of products. And it did that on the back of the world’s biggest influencer, and the world’s most brilliant content creator.

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