How To Build A Brand In A Global Crisis

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Chris is the CMO of FlexMR, a hybrid research agency & tech firm that empowers brands with agile insight. He also hosts the MRX Lab podcast.

The past few years have thrown unprecedented challenges at the global economy: A pandemic. War in Europe. Supply chain breakdowns. Rapidly rising inflation and murmurs of recession. It can be tempting to ask, during such trying times, what place does marketing have amid such dire circumstances?

That’s certainly a question the British government didn’t hesitate to ask. Amid what has been dubbed a cost-of-living crisis in the U.K., the government was recently reported to be working on a campaign that would encourage brands to cut costs by cutting marketing and advertising spend. Make no mistake, this completely misrepresents the role that marketing plays in modern business. Not only does data from the Advertising Association suggest that brands increase profits by an average of over $3 for every $1 spent on advertising, but research from IRI shows that investment in both trade promotions and brand promise is crucial to mitigating inflationary price hikes.

Eagle-eyed readers might notice the similarities between those two important tenets and Les Binet and Peter Field’s seminal work on balancing long- and short-term marketing strategies. Yes, that’s right. Even in the midst of the most difficult commercial landscape of the 21st century, grounded marketing frameworks still deliver success.

For the uninitiated, the core takeaway of this work is that for advertising and marketing to be effective, 40% of budgets should be geared toward short-term sales activations while 60% should be dedicated to long-term brand building. That means the majority of a marketing budget isn’t delivering growth today. It’s building a platform for continued success. Brands that cut marketing spend today may relieve short-term pressures, but they will inevitably find themselves in a much weaker position in three to five years.

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Marketing is not a cost center. It’s not a frivolous pursuit that drives prices up. It is the process of successfully taking a product or service to market. It is the act of deciding on product, price, place and promotion. It is the knowledge center of customer, company and competitor insight. And, most importantly, it is a vital, market-independent function.

Of course, this does beg the obvious question: What is the right way to approach marketing during a global crisis? To get you started, here are three things you should be doing, and three to avoid.

Do Invest In Customer Insight

A frequent topic of conversation among marketers is how we know whether we’re making the right decisions, whether that’s which features to build into a new product, setting the right price point and promotional values, or even choosing the right media mix. The answer is simple: Good marketers speak to customers and listen to data.

The need for customer insight is amplified during times of crisis, when one wrong misstep can easily snowball. So be sure to conduct surveys, hold focus groups and implement customer experience programs—listen carefully and invest in building strong relationships with other departments so the voices of those who matter most carry the influence they should.

Do Communicate With Honesty And Transparency

In times of supply chain shortages, rising costs and other external challenges, eventually there will be an impact on your business. And often, whether it’s reflected in stock levels, price or service touchpoints, those changes will need to be communicated to your customers.

But, of course, there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach this. Today’s consumers are savvy. They’re adept at cutting through corporate speak to find the heart of a story. If mistakes were made, it’s important to own up to that. If rising market pressures are impacting your business, let customers know. It’s much more valuable to build trust and empathy than to ignore the realities of a situation or protect a brand image dishonestly.

Do Be Bold And Memorable

Swift and decisive action make for a compelling and memorable story. If your brand or client is affected by external factors outside of their control, ask, “What do our customers want us to do?” Answer fast, and implement even faster. It is the actions of those who act first that will be remembered.

For example, in response to rising costs of living, U.K. supermarket chain Asda was widely praised for slashing the price of children’s cafe meals to 1 pound over the summer break from school. The action is timely, relevant to the chain’s target market and ties into the brand’s long-term, price-centric messaging. And the move has been so well received that pressure has been put on the brand’s competitors to follow suit.

Don’t Pivot Your Brand Strategy

The success of a brand strategy isn’t measured in days or weeks. It’s measured in months and years. While it’s important to be flexible and resonate with changing times, a pivot should be driven by an internal need—not a reaction to external stimuli. There’s no quicker way to kill a brand than with a poorly timed or badly executed pivot. If you’re unsure how your brand exists within a suddenly changed environment, don’t fall back on knee-jerk reactions; ask your customers first.

Don’t Preach To The Choir

Purpose and social values are important. Customers want their brands to reflect their personal identities. But this doesn’t mean that brands should preach those values, especially to those who already hold them. For an example of just how damaging this can be, you need look no further than the analysis by advertising effectiveness company System1, which found that nearly half of the (admittedly creative and purpose-led) Cannes winners in 2022 do not have the potential to drive long-term growth. Ouch.

So, instead of putting values at the center of your advertising, aim to live these values in your operations and decisions. Build a brand that speaks for itself, and derive advertising creative from the intersection of company, customer and competitor knowledge.

Don’t Cut Marketing Spend

To end where we began, the most important mistake to avoid is cutting marketing spend. Whether you’re investing in the future, creating competitive advantages from customer insight or navigating uncharted waters, effective marketing is the vehicle that will carry your brand through to the other side.


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