Lessons From Past Crises: The Conclusions

Over the last few weeks, I’ve written a number of short stories about brands that have prospered during, or just after, a crisis. I thought I should try and bring all the learning together in one place… so here goes

  1. Keep spending

One of the most immediate and obvious impacts of a crisis is the slashing of marketing budgets, and not just advertising budgets. There is, however, a body of evidence that suggests maintaining budgets in advertising, promotion and innovation can pay future dividends.

Keep going – Famously P&G kept spending throughout the Great Depression, investing in advertising and sponsorship – radio serials (they put the soap into soap operas) and reaped the rewards.

  1. Review your capabilities

Marketing strategies either start Outside-In, reviewing the market and seeing where you capabilities let you play to win, or Inside-Out, where you review your core capabilities and consider what new opportunities you could access with them. This latter approach is something that can happen during a crisis, as businesses pivot their production capabilities or their routes to market to help solve problems or overcome barriers to trade.

Pivoting – Kotex started life as Cellucotton and was supplied by Kimberley-Clark to WWI front line hospitals as a highly absorbent bandage material. It was also used by nurses as material for what was then called their ‘ladies’ days’. Left with large quantities at the end of the war it was repackaged, renamed and sold as a sanitary towel. More recently we have seen numerous businesses ‘pivot’ during the Covid crisis, from alcoholic drinks and perfume producers switching to help produce sanitizer, to hi-tech companies and brands who know about motors and air flow switching to develop ventilators.

Finding new routes to market – The Covid crisis has meant large sections of the economy had to close down almost over-night, their traditional customers unable or just not wanting what was on offer. Moving to home-delivery, on-line sales or shifting from business to business to a business to consumer model has helped them

  1. Explore opportunities to shifting product usage from crisis to consumer

Translating products developed for a crisis, unfortunately often a war, to something more mainstream is a well-trodden path.

Move from the front line to fashionable – Aviator sunglasses were designed to stop glare and reduce headaches in pilots, the Burberry trench coat was developed, as the name suggests, for use in the trenches, but both made the transition to iconic fashion items. It will be interesting to see if in years to come historians talk about ‘Covid couture’, how scrubs went from utilitarian to chic lounge-wear, how face masks became hip.

Adapt its use – The Jeep was sometimes described as a G.I.’s favourite mode of transport, but after the war it was adapted and improved, first for use in agricultural settings and ultimately it become the C.J., the civilian Jeep. Duct tape began life as a secure, waterproof closure on munitions, before usage in the construction industry for use in joining vents and ducts, changing from green to silver to reflect the new usage.

  1. Strategies during or after a depression/recession

Even once we hopefully start to get back to a ‘new’ normal, it won’t be very normal as we are going to be entering what many economists believe will be the biggest recession of the last 100 years.

Think value – Disposable income for a large proportion of the world’s population is going to be tight and so more than ever value or indeed low-cost will be attractive.  E&J Gallo spotted this post the great depression and set out on a low-price share gain strategy which would evolve over time in building a full portfolio of wines.

Think basic – While disposable income is tight, there are likely to be basics that everyone will still need. The first Sears store was opened in Chicago in 1925 and it expanded quickly, with 300 department stores across the U.S. by 1929. During the Great Depression it focused on selling affordable staples such as socks, underwear, sheets and towels. It came out of the depression far stronger than it had gone in, having almost doubled the number of its stores and expanded even further across the nation

Think small – Another likely result of a steep recession is that people trade down. Some brands will adapt their innovation strategy accordingly. The British Motor Corporation had three cars in development, a small, a medium and a luxury car and it shifted its focus onto the small car …and produced the Mini.

Think little luxuries – Even when times are tough, and especially as things start to improve, people still crave a few little luxuries, a little something to give themselves a lift. Two brands that catered for this were Revlon, who introduced the first matching nail varnishes and lipsticks, and Disney who provided the humour and sunshine during the grey days of the depression.

  1. Look for the “after the storm” post-crises opportunities

When crises are finally over there are always opportunities for some businesses and brands, they just have to recognize them

What needs to be done – From August to October 2017, the U.S. was devastated by three hurricanes: Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. It destroyed and damaged thousands of houses and the combined cost was $268 billion. Not surprisingly, Home Depot saw sales of plywood, lumber, bricks, drywall, power generators and roofing material shoot up.

Target new or growing behaviours –  While many pundits who want to grab the headlines say that ‘everything will change’, history suggests that only some new attitudes or behavoiurs will last after a crisis passes, one of the most evident effects is that existing trends tend to accelerate.

So, five strategies for you to consider and 11 specific initiatives that you may be able to employ. However, before signing off from this series I thought it only right to write one last piece on what lessons marketers are learning from this crisis, which will be either a bit presumptuous or suitably leading edge depending on your point of view.

By: Giles Lury

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