How Brands Can Maintain Success While Weathering a Recession

April 3, 2020
SCMP Insights
The cyclical nature of business means long-serving brands eventually face a downturn or two. That does not mean your branding needs to take a hit. Here are five Cs to help you keep boosting your brand through the toughest times.

I was lucky enough to enjoy professional success during the SARS epidemic and global financial crisis, although my first real memory of a bad economy was the Asian financial crisis, when my father lost his job.

During the good and bad times, throughout my career I have worked with multiple local, regional and global brands and their agencies. Now from my vantage point, leading the international business for SCMP, I wanted to share a few pieces of advice based on my experiences.

Being Singaporean, I confess that I enjoy my acronyms. So, I’m happy to share my ‘5Cs’ of brand success during bad times. I hope these insights — where I have perceived many similarities to previous recessions — will help and perhaps be constructive to your business in some way.

Conserve your value

I want to start with the fact that although many businesses are tightening their belts, it is first and foremost important to ‘conserve’ your value. But what does this mean?

Currently, consumers have more time to reflect, and tend to closely consider quality-for-money. Therefore, it is extremely important for brands to retain the value of their products, or step it up, even.

After all, anyone who has done a customer lifetime value analysis knows that keeping an existing customer will yield more return than acquiring a new one. My advice? Conserve the value you have built before the bad times and be more efficient in spending on things that tend to cost less during this period, such as advertising.

As the Harvard Business Review deduced after the 2008 financial crisis, marketing isn’t optional. Rather, it’s a “good cost” that is essential to bringing in revenues from your key customers and others. So, take advantage of it!

An example much closer to home is our newsroom. Our newsroom staffers have done a great job conserving the value of the 116-year old SCMP name, using their unique access to China during the early days of the Covid-19 epidemic to focus on reader needs. This has resulted in the monthly page views of SCMP rising 44 per cent in February 2020 compared to January engagement figures.

We achieved this with a focus on quality, never wavering from our journalistic code of conduct, and understanding what our readers were looking for. On the marketing side, we continue to invest in events (now virtual) and digital advertising.

Communicate clearly

Depending on your product offering, quality control can be directly impacted by what employees believe to be true. Let’s take for example a barista who cares for her company. She could start putting less milk in a latte, thinking she is helping her employer save costs during these times.

She is unaware, however, that the brand actually wants to commit to a higher standard in an effort to ‘conserve’ customers, product quality and service offerings. Since this barista already cares for her company, she could have aligned with brand requirements if she had understood the company’s stance.

In other words, the brand could have prevented poor-quality lattes from reaching customers if management had communicated better with the staff in their coffee shops. Therefore, communicate clearly and never assume people in different departments interpret a crisis the same way you do.

I recently witnessed the reality of this when a colleague in the Hong Kong office was discovered to be infected with Covid-19. SCMP’s HR department and leadership immediately shifted to a pre-communicated business continuity plan, instituting remote work arrangements.

Moreover, the company continued to send out regular updates on the health of the affected colleague, traced the colleague’s contacts, initiated test results on all close contacts and analysed overall impact on her department. This gave everyone a sense of confidence, trust in our brand and the ability to continue working with minimal disruption. We even managed to announce SCMP’s involvement in the Trust Project at this time — the first news organisation in Asia to do so!

Context is everything

Experience is all about context. The current global consciousness is all about frugality, safety and protection. What is the best fit for your brand? Don’t appear opportunistic; instead take your usual mission statement, brand voice and value offering and make your product or service relevant to fit with current times. Given the global impact of this pandemic, localise communications for branding needs. But never forget to tie everything back into the big picture and overall brand message.

For example, diamond brand De Beers’ famous tagline ‘A Diamond is Forever’ is not something that should be changed during a dip in the economy. A change would destroy all the hard work they had previously been put into building the brand, and (due to the choice of words) it would also be impossible to pivot back to pre-recession days.

Thus, the De Beers’ marketing team decided to run campaigns during the Christmas season in 2008 with visuals toasting “here’s to less”, urging customers to buy “fewer, better things” because “a diamond is forever”. Since this was the festive season during a global recession, sales that Christmas were naturally lower than the year before. However, the company retained its prices, value and long-term appeal to customers.

Creativity is the answer

Once you know your offering and where your brand stands, use interesting and engaging ways to connect with your audience. De Beers found success with a simple and clever tweak to its long-standing brand tagline but the team also understood that they would target the same audience base as before.

These days, it is easy for brands to efficiently use marketing budgets by employing analytical predictive technologies that interpret behavioural and demographical data. Coupled with smart targeting, brands can undertake media buying with as little wastage as possible. Pair this great distribution with creative messaging relevant to the times and you have a recipe for success!

A great example of responsible, relevant advertising is what IKEA Spain did with this video. You can see here how a brand well-known for home furnishings stuck to its core message, whilst remaining relevant.

They somehow managed to put this video sequence together even with constraints now on travel and social distancing. Physical distance tends to traditionally hamper the speed and quality of creative production but with the right partner, it is possible to still create engaging brand messages — for instance by using stock images, or with talented writers.

Using SCMP’s audience segmentation, data analysis and advertising options, together with the award-winning content production services of our in-house studio, Morning Studio, SCMP can help brands find success with the 5Cs and more.

Courage is essential

Last but not least, my fifth ‘C’ is a call for us to stand together and to be honest about what is happening, so we can take responsible steps to build better brands and be better humans. I remember that when my dad lost his job during the Asian financial crisis, we had to rely on support from the government, but we stayed strong and pulled through as a family.

Today, bleak headlines dominate again, but don’t let them get to you. Be that brand owner who is optimistic, the one planning ahead, the one admitting that bad things can happen. But know that you can get through this with clever use of resources and clarity about your core brand principles.

When a brand is courageous in times of uncertainty, it can emerge stronger from the bad times. This too, shall pass.