Cut Through The Crisis
“Think of your customers as falling into four groups:
The slam-on-the-brakes segment feels most vulnerable and hardest hit financially. This group reduces all types of spending by eliminating, postponing, decreasing, or substituting purchases. Although lower-income consumers typically fall into this segment, anxious higher-income consumers can as well, particularly if health or income circumstances change for the worse.
Pained-but-patient consumers tend to be resilient and optimistic about the long term but less confident about the prospects for recovery in the near term or their ability to maintain their standard of living. Like slam-on-the-brakes consumers, they economize in all areas, though less aggressively. They constitute the largest segment and include the great majority of households unscathed by unemployment, representing a wide range of income levels. As news gets worse, pained-but-patient consumers increasingly migrate into the slam-on-the-brakes segment.Comfortably well-off consumers feel secure about their ability to ride out current and future bumps in the economy. They consume at near-prerecession levels, though now they tend to be a little more selective (and less conspicuous) about their purchases. The segment consists primarily of people in the top 5% income bracket. It also includes those who are less wealthy but feel confident about the stability of their finances—the comfortably retired, for example, or investors who got out of the market early or had their money in low-risk investments such as CDs.
The live-for-today segment carries on as usual and for the most part remains unconcerned about savings. The consumers in this group respond to the recession mainly by extending their timetables for making major purchases. Typically urban and younger, they are more likely to rent than to own, and they spend on experiences rather than stuff (with the exception of consumer electronics). They’re unlikely to change their consumption behavior unless they become unemployed.
Regardless of which group consumers belong to, they prioritize consumption by sorting products and services into four categories:
- Essentials are necessary for survival or perceived as central to well-being.
- Treats are indulgences whose immediate purchase is considered justifiable.
- Postponables are needed or desired items whose purchase can be reasonably put off.
- Expendables are perceived as unnecessary or unjustifiable.
All consumers consider basic levels of food, shelter, and clothing to be essentials, and most would put transportation and medical care in that category. Beyond that, the assignment of particular goods and services to the various categories is highly idiosyncratic.
Throughout a downturn, all consumers except those in the live-for-today segment typically reevaluate their consumption priorities. We know from previous recessions that such products and services as restaurant dining, travel, arts and entertainment, new clothing, automobiles, appliances, and consumer electronics can quickly shift in consumers’ minds from essentials to treats, postponables, or even expendables, depending on the individual. As priorities change, consumers may altogether eliminate purchases in certain categories, such as household services (cleaning, lawn care, snow removal), moving them from essentials, say, into expendables. Or they may substitute purchases in one category for purchases in another, perhaps swapping dining out (a treat) for cooking at home (an essential). And because most consumers become more price sensitive and less brand loyal during recessions, they can be expected to seek out favorite products and brands at reduced prices or settle for less-preferred alternatives. For example, they may choose cheaper private labels or switch from organic to nonorganic foods.
Surgically trimming the budget is easier to do during a downturn than in prosperous times. Tough times provide an imperative to cut loose poor performers and eliminate low-yield tactics. When survival is at stake, it is easier to get companywide buy-in for revising marketing strategies and reallocating investments. Managers can defy old mind-sets and creatively search for superior solutions to customer needs instead of relying on the next line extension. The challenge is to make well-defended, case-by-case recommendations about where to cut spending, where to hold it steady, and even where to increase it.
Begin by performing triage on your brands and products or services. Determine which have poor survival prospects, which may suffer declining sales but can be stabilized, and which are likely to flourish during the recession and afterward.
Allocate for the long term.
When sales start to decline, companies shouldn’t panic and alter a brand’s fundamental proposition or positioning.
Balance the communications budget.
During recessions cash-strapped marketing departments are under pressure to do more with less and demonstrate high returns on investment. Typically, the share of the advertising budget devoted to broadcast media shrinks, whereas the share that goes toward efforts with more-measurable results, such as direct marketing campaigns and online ads, grows. Point-of-purchase marketing—promoting price cuts or generating in-store excitement—also tends to pick up during recessions.
Streamline product portfolios.
In the comparatively mild recession of 2001, marketers were able to get by with temporary, minor adjustments to production quantities and avoid wholesale revisions of prices or product lines. In a deeper recession, marketers can benefit by cleaning up their product lines and so should seize the initiative early rather than waiting to be forced into making changes.
Slam-on-the-brakes and pained-but-patient customers in particular will be shopping around for the best deals. All businesses will increasingly compete on price.
Worried consumers—even in the comfortably well-off and live-for-today segments—see familiar, trusted brands and products as a safe and comforting choice in trying times. Reassuring messages that reinforce an emotional connection with the brand and demonstrate empathy are vital.
Positioning for Recovery
Survivors that make it through this recession by focusing their attention on consumer needs and core brands will be strongly positioned for sunnier days ahead. However, companies must understand how people’s behavior may change following the recession so they will be able to offer products and communicate messages aligned with the needs of new consumer segments.”