7 Strategies for Marketing in a Downturn: How to Thrive, Not Simply Survive 

Tracy Marlowe  |  March 7, 2024

Many recent economic articles have grappled with whether US will go into a recession in 2024. Some think yes. Others predict no. Yet many industries and entrepreneurs are feeling the impact of inflation, tight labor markets, and pandemic-induced supply chain issues that have never quite returned to normal. So recession or not, many businesses are seeing some cooling off trends and some are even laying off workers.

I’m no stranger to downturns or recessions. My marketing agency Creative Noggin began offering full-service marketing and advertising services in 2008, which was a notoriously pivotal year for many businesses and industries. It was a risky move to attempt to scale a business during that time, yet the company managed to grow an average of 265% per year from 2008 to 2011. 

Achieving meteoric growth in the midst of one of the country’s most grueling recessions would be impressive for any company. But when you consider that marketing is typically one of the first budget line items to get slashed when spending gets tight, that amount of growth was pretty extraordinary. 

So how did my team and I accomplish what might seem impossible? 

Marketing in a downturn can feel very uncertain. So how can business leaders and marketers learn from my experience? What similar practices can they put into play as consumers and businesses alike are closely scrutinizing their marketing and expenses moving into 2024? 

Here are the seven strategies I used to help my company and clients not only survive but thrive during the last recession. 

Strategy #1: Check your fear at the door. 

Your attitude is the first leading indicator that will determine how you will emerge from a rough patch in your business. When faced with economic peril, most businesses employ a “hunker down to survive” strategy. Instead, change your perspective by seeing a downturn not as an obstacle but as an opportunity. 

You need to BELIEVE you will succeed. If you don’t, you won’t. End of story.  

Even the most successful businesses encounter economic challenges. Even those whose revenue growth chart looks like a Swiss mountain will hit a dip or valley now and again. 

It’s important to prepare for potential valleys by building savings and putting strategies into play to mitigate the downturns. But no matter how much we prepare, seeing and preparing for a downturn on the horizon is far different than being in the valley and having to find footholds to climb your way out. It can be daunting. Seeing months of loss on your business’s income statement can be painful. Regaining your ground can be grueling. 

Remember that everyone is looking to you for leadership during this difficult time. If you believe you will succeed, they will too. Stay focused, take care of your own mental health, and keep your eyes on the horizon while refocusing on your original vision for the organization. Your attitude is one of your most valuable assets during this challenging time. 

Remember, too, that business leaders who find and seize opportunities during a downturn often don’t only survive the downturn. They come out ahead of where they started. 

Strategy #2: Focus on efficiency over “savings.” 

Slashing your budget to simply reduce expenses is a dangerous way to mitigate loss. 

In downturns, business leaders will often start looking for places to quickly reduce spending. Oftentimes, one of the first budgets they slash is marketing. But that’s not always the best place to start. 

It’s a good idea to see where you can reduce your discretionary spending. By all means, look closely at your balance sheet and see if there are line items where you need to tighten your belt. That corporate leadership retreat might need to be local this year. Run an audit of your software subscriptions and ensure there are no redundancies and that you aren’t spending on anything you aren’t using.  

You’ll gain the most by looking through a microscope at your processes and people. Ask yourself questions like: 

  • Are there processes that are taking too long? 
  • Is your sales funnel bogged down with manual steps you could automate? 
  • Are you spending $125 per hour for bookkeeping services that you could be having done by offshore talent for $14 per hour? 
  • Could you save by switching to a retainer plan with your agency for a set monthly spend, rather than being charged individually for every hour or task? 

Look hard to find ways you can streamline to gain efficiencies. These updates can save you now and will continue to pay dividends when the economy recovers and your business starts to ramp back up. 

Need help as you find ways to improve efficiency? Book a 30-minute strategy call with my team. 

Strategy #3: Lean into your differentiators. 

Remember who you are and why people do business with you in the first place. Remind your team of those differentiators. This is your WHY. Don’t lose sight of who you are, your mission, and why your customers chose and continue to choose you. 

Look closely at your very best customers. Who are they? What makes them tick? Why do they love you and why do they recommend you to their friends? Market to THEM. And ask your current customers for testimonials to share with others. Don’t be afraid to ask for referrals, either. A customer referral is your most compelling and least expensive form of marketing. 

Remembering who you are and marketing yourself authentically will help you return to where you were prior to the downturn. Lean into those differentiators and craft campaigns that will help you bring in more of them. 

Even when things get overwhelming, don’t lose sight of your why.  

Strategy #4: Consider new markets or products, but don’t change who you are (or reduce prices on your core products or services). 

Oftentimes, the knee-jerk reaction when marketing during a recession or downturn is to start marketing to everyone. Too many companies try to be everything to everyone. It’s even tempting to loosen your customer thresholds or lower prices in an attempt to take on any customer. 

That is not how you build a scalable company. It can be hard to recover from discounting and you don’t want to lose sight of why your customers chose you in the first place. 

Are there new services you could offer to gain revenue during your downturn and provide potential customers with a lower-cost introduction to your brand? That new customer relationship could translate into future sales when your market turns around.  

Strategy #5: Watch your competitors closely. Never spend less than they are on marketing. 

Tough markets can be ripe with opportunities for business leaders and entrepreneurs. Savvy marketers keep a very close eye on their competitors and ensure they are creating compelling marketing campaigns that differentiate themselves from competitors. 

As painful as it can be to spend money right now, do not stop marketing. Spend at least as much as your competitors. Hopefully, you socked away some savings for this rainy day. You should leverage this time when your competitors are likely spending less to spend more

Even if your prospective customers are converting slower at a lower ratio than in times of plenty, these leads and impressions gained will translate into a bounty of potential when the market recovers. 

And if you need help deciding where your marketing dollars will be most impactful, my team and I will be happy to find that for you. Reach out to schedule a free 30-minute strategy call. 

Strategy #6: Invest in your business. 

What have you always known you needed to do to level up? This is an ideal time to do just that. 

Most leaders who have been around for a while know that there are times of feast and famine in business. Those who have been through a famine before have likely squirreled away some nuts for just this occasion. 

If you have enough saved, and I’m talking more than enough to “just get by,” then this is an ideal time to tackle those projects you’ve always known you should have done, but never had enough time for. I'm referring to those projects that you knew could help improve your business efficiency, sales and marketing processes, conversion rates, and operations. 

Here are some examples of improvements to tackle:  

  • Streamline processes by adding automation to your funnels 
  • Launch a new website more focused on the user experience 
  • Implement a new software that will save you money in the long term 
  • Find a talented, experienced marketing agency to help you move the needle 

If you have these kinds of ideas that you put off until you “had enough time,” this is a great time to dust those off and invest the time in implementing them now. 

In short, seize the opportunity to focus on business improvement while you are a bit less busy with operations. 

Strategy #7: Invest in yourself. 

Use this opportunity to learn, practice regular self-care, and keep recentering yourself. 

Find opportunities to increase your skill set. Are there weaknesses you perceive within your leadership toolbox? See if you can find ways to level up. The last time my company faced challenging times, I took a week off and attended an executive finance workshop at Penn State’s Warton School of Business. It was transformative and has changed the way I run my business. As much as it feels like you can’t leave the prow of the ship, be aware of your shortcomings and do what you can to fill those gaps. 

Leading a business through turbulent times is not a walk in the park. These are the times that will prove who has staying power. You will have days that are incredibly taxing, both mentally and emotionally. Take care of yourself. As tempting as it is, do not work 18 hours a day. Take breaks. Go on walks. Meditate. Get a massage. 

The saying, “Be sure to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you take care of others,” has never been truer. You cannot lead your company through these tempestuous times if you are not taking care of yourself and staying focused on the end goal.  

We're here to help. 

I hope these strategies were helpful. For more guidance on how to employ these strategies in your business, connect with my team and me. Follow me on LinkedIn, and reach out to schedule a marketing strategy call. We'll be glad to help you not just survive these tough times but thrive through them! 

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