marketing office working business

Four Steps to Market Your Way Through a Recession (Plus a Bonus Tip!)

No Axes 🪓
Strengthen 💪
Attack 🥷🏿
Don’t Stop ⏳

BONUS: 🥶🧊❄️

The go-to inevitabilities in American society tend to be death and taxes — and with good reason.

After all, death is coming for all of us at some point, and income taxes were supposed to be a temporary fix to help fund the Union effort in the Civil War, which, despite the lack of acceptance by some Southerners, ended 137 years ago.

On some level, the decision to start belt-tightening with marketing when things get tough makes sense. After all, if consumer pocket books are beginning to feel a strong pinch, there won’t be as much disposable income floating around to buy the product or service a company is selling, which means there probably is a better time to go all-in on marketing.

Yet this philosophy is based on a fundamentally flawed and, thanks to the rise of data, demonstrably false belief in what marketing is and does. Rather than going dark on marketing, company executives would be much better off to reevaluate and refocus and use a perhaps somewhat smaller and more streamlined marketing budget to capitalize on the doors left wide open by less-intelligent others still operating under that false philosophy.

Let’s examine that.

Smart bettors would place a wager on the fact that the United State is going to have a recession — and probably a pretty uncomfortable one. There are so many factors right now that have created so many imbalances in the economy that cooling down inflation without slowing growth too much would be an epic tightrope walk.

A recession is generally defined as two consecutive quarters of declining Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which itself is defined as a measure of the monetary value of final goods and services (those that are bought by the final user) produced in a country in a given period of time.

A hallmark of a recession for businesses is slowing sales. Slowing sales leads to less revenue, which, if budgets aren’t proportionally trimmed, leads to losses and, if not checked, bankruptcy.

The flawed philosophy that executives operated under for so long is that marketing is a cost center. It’s the department that spends money and brings in none, and it’s often inhabited by weird people with crazy things adorning their workspace who are willing to fight you to the death if you try to replace their Mac with a PC. Sure, execs would agree that marketing has some impact on revenue, but for years and years and years, there was no definitive, empirical way to find correlation, much less causation.

That made marketing an easy target and, because sales were dipping amidst the recession anyway, there was no way for anyone in marketing to say, “See! I told you if you cut marketing your sales would drop!”

Not only can marketers today highlight a return on the investment in the department, it can do so for specific campaigns and — now we’re gettin’ real crazy — specific ads within those campaigns. No longer are we at the mercy of newspaper people who talk to us about their circulation without really being able to tell us anything about their demographics and actual eyes on our stuff. Now, it’s relatively easy to say “We spent $1,000 on this ad and it brought in $1,500 in revenue. If you want to make cuts from the thing that brought you profit, well, hey, you’re the boss.”

Of course, this isn’t a universal truth about every single type of marketing, though those types still have merit (which we’ll talk about in a second). For example, I can’t tell you the return on your investment in a billboard. I can’t tell you your return on investment on your appearance at a trade show. I can’t tell you your return on investment for your time showing up at a gathering and shmoozing with past clients.

It’s there. Trust me. But there’s no precise way to tell you what it is.

So, knowing that the traditional model of judging marketing as a cost center is woefully wrong, what should smart businesses — be they massive tech companies such as Microsoft or one-person small businesses — be doing right about now as the recession storm clouds gather?

I’m glad you asked.

Step 1: No Axes Allowed!

The first thing to do is put your ax away. I know you want to cut your marketing. Trust me, I get it. Just don’t.

Capturing potential customers’ attention in this age of constant media bombardment is difficult in the best of times. When people are feeling the pinch of a recession? It’s easier to herd cats than to grab mindspace.

What’s mindspace? Well, it’s the space your product or service occupies in a person’s mind (duh). That can be conscious mindspace, as in “I love McDonald’s, so I’m going to McDonald’s,” or it can be subconscious mindspace in which you’ve done such a bang-up job at marketing your stuff that people turn to what you offer without even realizing why.

Let me state this as strongly as I can:
You. Cannot. Give. Up. Mindspace. Now.

You’ve worked hard to gain the mindspace you already have. Going dark during tough times can have disastrous long-term consequences.

So just don’t. Don’t do it. Stop thinking about doing it. Put the ax down. It’s not gonna happen.

I’m not gonna take all your fun away, though. Drop the ax and pick up those pruning sheers. No, not the hedge clippers! The little ones. Like Mr. Miyagi used on his bonsai trees.

Step 2: Accentuate Your Strengths

Now we’re going to carefully evaluate the data on your advertising and find the things that are performing best. Then, we’re going to leave those things alone!

That’s what’s going to make the pain of your personal company recession less bad than those who don’t read this.

If Step 1 is to put the ax away and pick up the pruning sheers, Step 2 is to make smart choices to divert money away from the things that are least effective — even if they are effective — and either pocket it to cover the dip in revenue or, if you’re fortunate enough, dump it into the things that are working best to accentuate your strengths and grab market share.

Confronted with data showing solid return on investment on at least some of their marketing, an executive who’s not an idiot will understand that there’s value to continue the spend because it’s a net gain. You’re not an idiot, so you’re on to Step 3!

Step 3: Bust Down Open Doors

See that guy?☝️☝️☝️ That’s your competition getting blasted in the face. Why? They are going to do something stupid because they’re panicking at the thought of a recession.

You’re not because, as we’ve established, you’re not an idiot. So you’re going to pay close attention to your competitors, which you should have been doing anyway, and when they pull back on marketing on one of their products or services in which you know you’re pretty dang good, you’re going to kick down their doors and take their market share.

This may necessitate a return trip to Step 1 to trim some of the remaining items in your own marketing budget on the things you know you’ve got locked up securely. Then you’re going to pour whatever money you can into your products or services that you know are amazing offerings but might be underperforming for any number of justifiable reasons, and you’re going to set yourself up for post-recession success.

Click for a Step 3 Example!

Say you started off as a widget maker, and you’re the most dominant player in that space by far. Five years ago, you entered to wadget-making market, dominated by Company X, because you had a great wadget improvement. It’s tough to break into established market, and though you know your wadgets are better, it’s not easy to capture people’s attention.

As the recession gains steam, you notice those arrogant fools at Company X aren’t marketing their wadgets anymore.


Kick down those doors and create the most amazing wadget marketing campaign ever. Those dummies won’t know what hit them, and by the time this recession is over, you’ll own a larger share of the wadget market.

Step 4: Stay the Course

You are going to wake up really, really early one morning and find yourself in the middle of a freak-out. It’s OK and it’s normal. It’s hard to be an outlier who’s spending money when times are tough.

Being in outlier is what makes people successful. You can follow the crowd in panic or you can capitalize on their anxiety.

Stay the course with your marketing. Once you’ve done Steps 1, 2 and 3, all you need to do is monitor your campaigns and look at the data to see what’s working and what’s not. Then, repeat Steps 1, 2 and 3.

“But we’re still losing money!”


OK, that’s not good. No one said you won’t have to make cuts. Just look elsewhere to make them. If you’re a larger company, I suggest starting with human resources, simply because you’ll likely have fewer humans to have to worry about be doing fewer of the things HR handles.

Whatever you choose to cut, leave your marketing alone.

You wouldn’t drive into a desert with a gas tank on E, would you? Marketing is the fuel for your gas tank, and when you’re headed toward a recession, well, there’s your desert. Your marketing is what’s going to get you through the heat and to the good times in the mountains.

Bonus Tip! Keep It Chill

Now that you’ve smartly decided to not decimate your future by obliterating your marketing (and hey, good job on that!), there’s something else you can do to capitalize on a coming recession.

Remember, people don’t act because of data. They act because of feelings. With high gas prices, high egg prices, high haircut prices etc. etc. etc. and more and more companies swinging the ax on their employee ranks, the overwhelming emotion right now is stress. You don’t want people to associate how they feel right now with your products or services.

Soothing colors. Calm tones. Pleasing images. Kind words. Think soft. Then go do that.

John Agliata is a marketing professional with more than 30 years of communications experience. Reach him at or (352) 226-5852.

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