The Secret To Selling When Nobody's Buying As the economy flounders, advertisers are learning how to exploit the hard times by pitching their products as bargains. That's the first lesson in Recession Marketing 101.
NPR logo The Secret To Selling When Nobody's Buying

The Secret To Selling When Nobody's Buying

The dairy industry hired personal finance guru Suze Orman to champion milk as a bargain. It's just one example of "recession marketing" — urging people to buy merchandise that saves them money. Courtesy of hide caption

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The dairy industry hired personal finance guru Suze Orman to champion milk as a bargain. It's just one example of "recession marketing" — urging people to buy merchandise that saves them money.

Courtesy of

Flip on the TV, click through the Internet and you'll see advertisers struggling with a dilemma: How do you sell stuff to people when nobody's buying?

The answer, according to the ad-world gurus, is "recession marketing." It's a way of raising money from lower expectations. Turning the bad times into glad times; dearth into mirth.

The messages are clear: Stay home and cook dinner instead of spending money at a restaurant. Do your own house cleaning, gardening and home repair. Buy more merchandise to save more money.

"Consumer marketers are focusing their most recent ad campaigns not just on the bargains they're able to offer, but also on the economic value they can deliver at a time when the country is acutely aware of what it's spending and where," writes Tessa Wegert on the ClickZ Web site for digital marketers. "Ads that take a decidedly cash-conscious spin are cropping up on television, in print, and of course, online."

Mary Beth West, head marketing honcho at Kraft Foods, explained recession marketing in a 2008 speech delivered to a bunch of advertising professionals just as the economic downturn was beginning to set in. The recession, she said, presents companies with a "marketing opportunity." And she encouraged salespeople to "reframe or redefine your value proposition to that consumer target."

In other words, she said, "How do you think about redefining what your brand stands for in a world of tight economy?"

For example, she said, Kraft planned to encourage dine-at-home experiences because fewer people dine out during a recession. And the company launched a campaign informing consumers that Kool-Aid is a really sweet deal: one-third the cost of soda.

Back To Basics

Allstate insurance is meeting hard times head on. In one TV spot, featuring the reassuring actor Dennis Haysbert (perhaps best known as President David Palmer on the Fox drama 24), the company reminds viewers that it got its start in 1931, during the Great Depression. "And through the 12 recessions since," Haysbert says, Allstate has noticed that "after the fears subside, a funny thing happens: People start enjoying the small things in life. It's back to basics, and the basics are good." Home and auto insurance, apparently, are among the basics.

Hyundai, the Korean auto manufacturer, is running an ad in which the voiceover intones: "Buy any new Hyundai and if in the next year you lose your income, we'll let you return it." Because, the ad continues, "We're all in this together. And we'll all get through it together."

Other companies have joined the recession procession. Fitness centers, cruise lines, hotels, office supply firms all offer discounts pegged to the wheezing economy. The dairy industry hired personal finance adviser Suze Orman to champion milk as a bargain. Kellogg's crows in an ad that its corn flakes cost "less than 50 cents a bowl." Wal-Mart combines two New Year notions and offers discount exercise machines that will "trim your body and your budget."

The First Thing To Go

A recession, says Mike Beltrame of Beltrame Leffler Advertising in Indianapolis, "is always a good time to cut the waste out of marketing budgets." An economic slowdown "forces a company to evaluate the most efficient target audiences and the most effective marketing tools."

"Keys to staying strong during and after recessionary periods," Beltrame says, "include maintaining brand awareness levels and maintaining brand image." That is, the one thing companies can't afford is to cut their marketing budgets so drastically that they risk diminishing the strength and visibility of their brand.

A consumer's ability to easily recall a brand's name has a direct correlation to sales, Beltrame says. "It is risky to cut marketing budgets to the point of losing name recognition and awareness, allowing other companies to gain strength and market share coming out of a recession."

Ad critic Bob Garfield of Advertising Age says, "It is a truism — and it's probably true — that if you spend into a recession, you will gain market share cheaply. However, in all of human history, no one has ever done so. Advertising and marketing expenditures are always the first thing to go."

Even so, recession-themed marketing has become so popular, writes Tessa Wegert, it is "poised to supplant green-themed campaigns."

After all, with lower gas prices and higher market fears, more and more consumers may see environmental consciousness as just one more luxury they can no longer afford.