Jan 21, 2016

Marketers: Five tips for surviving a downturn.

By Ward Pennebaker
Downturn Banner

While we wait for economists to make it official, Houstonians know the six surefire signs of an oil-related recession:

  1. Energy companies and service companies cut budgets and announce layoffs.
  2. Companies with deep pockets start buying smaller or weaker competitors.
  3. Restaurants peg their meal prices to the price of oil.
  4. A mayoral candidate runs a “back-to-basics” campaign.
  5. Real estate developers deny we’re in a recession.
  6. Marketers dust off their Jack Welch recession quotes, such as: “I love recessions. Recessions are when market share moves.”

My verdict: We’re in a recession, and we’d better not waste it. Because Jack Welch is right. Recessions are opportunities for companies and individuals to make their mark.   Let’s look at five strategies to help you through this downturn:

  1. Earn a seat at the strategy table.

    If you’ve been excluded from the company strategy table or not stepped up to take your place, now is the time to prove your worth.


    That means demonstrating your understanding of the business. CEOs want marketers and communicators who grasp the big picture and can provide ideas bigger and more creative than a new ad campaign. To earn (or keep) a seat at the strategy table, you need to bring market insights, customer insights and competitive insights. You need to be able to talk about where the industry is going, and where the opportunities are for your company. 

  2. Make the most of recession time.

    In recessions, some people tend to put on their invisibility cloak, while others try to look busy. Neither wins points with CEOs.

    • Conduct customer research that tells you something valuable and actionable.
    •  Audit your current marketing efforts and materials to find out what’s working and what’s not.
    • Understand what your department employees are hearing and thinking, especially the top performers you’ll need to deliver on your customer promise. 
  3. Uncover market opportunities.

    Not your job? Think again. It’s the perfect way to grab a seat at your company’s strategy table.

    Get to know your customers better than anyone else. Dig past the customer soundbites to discover the underlying truths. Then understand what makes—or can make—your company the problem solver your customers really need. Next, identify the other industries or customer subsets that could also benefit from your solution.

  4. Sharpen your marketing’s focus.

    Imagine your marketing budget is going to be cut 35 percent tomorrow. How would you react? (Hint: Hunkering down is not the right answer.)


    Recognize the ongoing changes in your market, your customer base and the competition, and then apply that knowledge to refocus your value proposition, positioning and messaging. The secret is to change your perspective. Think outside-in, not inside out.

  5. Be prepared to step up.

    You don’t have to know everything, but you do need the ability to learn. Too often people are afraid to ask for advice. A recent study by a Harvard Business School professor concluded that people who seek advice are perceived as more competent than those who don’t.

As someone who’s survived recessions over the past four decades (it didn’t count until after college), I can tell you that nothing about them is fun. I’ve worried about and been humbled by each downturn. But I’ve also learned that the companies and people who look at recessions as opportunities—not death sentences—tend to emerge stronger and more successful.

Together we’ll get through this one, just like the others.

Ward recently spoke to BMA Houston about marketing in a downturn.

Watch Ward's talk.

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