Marketing in a recession

In Season 22, episode 3, of the Simpsons, Marge tries to remind Homer of the limited time he has to spend more time with their kids. He famously answers, “That’s a problem for future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy.” During tough times, brands, feeling the pressure of short term results, often need to apply Homer’s thinking. It’s not that they want to, but sometimes it feels there are no other way.


Recessions are not easy. For customers it is a time of increased stress. For companies it is a time of great questioning. Where to cut budgets and where to maintain budgets is key among these questions. And while for everyone it is hard to look beyond the urgency of the now, the key things for brands is not to lose sight of the long-term impact of decisions made during tough times.

In this edition of the Rogue Report, we touch on some ways brands can stave off tough times with strategies that can help yield longer term results too.

Double down on private label where you can

During the uncertain times brought on by the Covid pandemic, customers looked to find ways to save. One of these ways was by purchasing private label brands. Private label brands offer the quality seal of national brands, but because of certain marketing efficiencies, they can be offered at competitive prices. Costco has been able to create an almost cult following with its line of Kirkland Signature products. So much so, that shoppers can even buy branded merch like hoodies with the logo of the private label.

What does this mean for your brand?

Private label does not mean you can’t innovate. Loblaws private label President’s Choice is sought out by customers not only because it delivers on quality and value, but also because it constantly introduce unique products and flavours.  More and more grocers are using a good, better, best product strategy for private labels. What was once a way for customers to identify value, has become a key element in building customer loyalty.

Brands can identify products that are complementary to their current lineup and consider ways they can bring them into the fold. Amazon has leverage this strategy well. Though it is important to note, Amazon has been accused of using sales data from sales of other brands on its marketplace to identify which product lines would be the most profitable for the company to introduce.

Re-frame your offer

In difficult times, customers rely on heuristics to help them make the best decision possible. This can mean going with the brand that is most top of mind. Knowing this, in the early 2010’s with the impact of the 2008 crisis still impacting buying decisions, Audi created a campaign to shift mindsets about how the brand stood up to some of it better know competitors. Notably it claimed to retain its value better than anything else that comes from germany, including its two direct competitors, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. The reframing worked and helped Audi increase sales by 15% compared to the previous year.

What does this mean for your brand?

Value is never as simple as offering the lowest price. But key for brands is understanding how they define value. From additional features, to proof of durability, it is important for brands to speak with customers to understand what signals value for them. With this in mind, communications during tough times can speak to this advantage and provide proof-points to how their brand meets the needs of customers better than others.

Be single-minded 

For years Lululemon has staved off complaints that its products are too pricey by explaining that its pricing strategy is based on ensuring a level of quality rather than affordability. Sure this doesn’t win over every customer but it sends a message about those who can and want to purchase their products about their single-minded desire to offer value through quality.

While Lululemon has had some setbacks in the area of product quality, in general their quality strategy is successful with most customers, including more and more men, raving about the brand’s clothes.

What does this mean for your brand?

We always want to say everything to everyone, not a perfect strategy in good times, but in a recession, where resources to speak to everyone can be limited, we sometimes have no choice but to stick to a single minded message. What is the single message that will help current customers stay with you and future customers remember you when times turn for the better for them?

Good ideas can come from times where constraints are highest. Whether finding new ways to put the spotlight on the unique value your brand offers, or framing in a way that it becomes salient for customers the key in a recession is to not sacrifice everything for short term gains. This isn’t always possible, they are called tough times for a reason, but key is to never cut back on creative solutions.

Because while there are many reasons why we don’t want to be like Homer Simpson, disregarding the well-being of our future selves is one of them.