The Digital Marketer’s Guide to Navigating a Recession

There have been some differing opinions on whether or not we’re in a recession. And while certain economic indicators can be read differently to that effect, many brands and advertisers are approaching 2023 with a sense of caution around the global economic outlook regardless.


Recession or not, what do marketers do in these conditions? Conventional wisdom has dictated that during lean economic times, ad spends should be reduced. Less money coming in means less to spend on marketing, right? The truth is, with modern data tools and more advanced measurement and analytics, recessions are no longer something to dread, but a crucial point of opportunity for brands.

By working smarter and understanding the nuances of marketing in a recession, brands can position themselves for long-term success when the economy ramps back up. In this guide we’ll look at some key considerations brands can make in their recession marketing plan.

Now is Not the Time to Panic Save

As any marketer knows, marketing budgets are always the first on the chopping block when revenue is shaky. As any economist knows, however, recessions are not permanent states. Brands that make impulsive budgetary decisions based on current economic conditions are setting themselves up for long-term failure.

Continuing to market in a recession is optimal, though obviously there are broader financial circumstances that may prevent a brand from doing so. Keeping marketing operations apace in tough economic circumstances is recommended because as the economy picks back up and consumers are looking to spend again, brands that lose relevance by neglecting marketing will be ill-positioned to capitalize on that return to normalcy.

Of course, this isn’t to say that marketing budgets should be spent the same during a recession. Placing ad spends for the same products or services in the same places and expecting the same results as economic boom times is a recipe for failure. Rather, marketers need to be smarter and more agile with their budgets, focusing on audiences that will pay off in the future, and products that conform to consumers’ economic realities.

Keying in on the Right Products and the Right Categories for Growth

During a recession, consumer purchasing habits may adapt to the times. For example, consumers may hold back on extravagant purchases or become less impulsive, saving up for one large, well-researched buy. Additionally, consumers tend to opt more for lower-cost meals, cooking at home, and generally less out-of-home entertainment.

What these indicators spell is that consumers are more price sensitive and less willing to spend on frivolous purchases. What this means for marketers is that the products being pushed should reflect where consumers are at, not where you’d like them to be. Focusing advertising on lower-cost products, sale items, or more everyday essential goods can prove more effective than advertising top-of-the-line luxury items.

It’s also important that marketing is better integrated with key business functions during lean economic times to avoid miscues. From a digital perspective it makes little sense to promote a product that is out of stock, yet you see examples of this happening all of the time in the retail industry. Pushing people to a website where a product is out of stock is not only wasted investment but provides a terrible customer experience.

Marketers need to remind themselves that recessions are not all-encompassing. Rather, they track aggregate economic growth, which means not everything slows down. We have great data at our fingertips on search trends and social trends that help us to identify what is still growing in economies that are contracting overall. By monitoring these trends, businesses can focus on areas that demonstrate strong indicators for future growth and invest accordingly.

Understanding Your Audiences and Messaging Effectively

As economies tighten, brands tend to think in the short-term; if we slash our marketing budgets or focus on quick sales among one-time customers, we’ll be able to stem the tide until the economy turns back around. The logic here isn’t necessarily flawed, but the idea that a brand will remain relevant without maintaining contact with loyal customers throughout a recession (for how long? Six months? A year? Two years?) is a dicey proposition.

During a recession, brands would be better served fostering relationships with loyal customers. By nurturing those consumer-brand relationships—through rewards programs, special offers, content marketing, product exclusives, and more—when those audiences have disposable income again, the brand will be top of mind.

It’s also important to make those points of contact matter for loyal customers. When marketing budgets are slashed, customers notice. If your loyal customers are receiving the same recycled ad for six months, it won’t do anything to foster loyalty. Investing in new and compelling marketing is crucial in a recession.

That said, fostering loyalty doesn’t mean that new audiences should be neglected. Lead generation initiatives shouldn’t be focused on quick selling, however. Having a one-and-done customer relationship may seem beneficial for hitting short-term sales metrics, but bringing a new customer into the nurture stream, even if they don’t buy anything right away, could be an even better prospect in the long run.

With all of your messaging, remember to be mindful of a customer’s position. Tailoring messaging in a way that speaks to customers where they are, especially during times of economic uncertainty, can be a strong brand differentiator over time.

Getting Smarter and Using the Tools at Your Disposal

There is that age-old marketing saying: “Half of my marketing budget is wasted, I just don’t know which half.” The nature of marketing is that you’re never going to have a 100% hit rate, but you can certainly work to improve the efficiency of your investment.

The advantage businesses have now versus previous economic downturns is that they have more information about what works and what doesn’t. This should be informing smarter marketing investment decisions, but all too often it isn’t. What’s more, not only do modern marketers have unprecedented access to data, modern tools in ML and AI can make sense of data and trends in ways marketers have never been able to.

The ability to automate actions in marketing is not leveraged nearly enough by most businesses. We can, for example, react to how price competitive we are, how much stock we have available, and how much stock our competitors have available, yet how often do we actually use this information?

Brands have been given a gift these past two years; navigating a “recession lite” has made clear the imperative to tighten up processes, connect disparate databases and platforms, and consolidate the mountains of information that can be used to make smarter marketing decisions. And, as a capital-R Recession continues to loom (or at the very least brands are operating under that threat), it isn’t too late to focus these efforts.

By leveraging better systems of data and tools to make sense of those insights, brands can ensure that the budgets they’re able to preserve will be more effective. These investments are not just the key to navigating a recession, but coming out the other side in a better position than before.

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