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November 23, 2009
“Wimplash”—The Real Reason for the Recession

Economic indicators are moving in wayward directions and the outlook often seems grim. Instead of throwing themselves into the fight, many people who sell for a living are suffering from what I call “Wimplash,” the inability to move up, down or sideways. Look. You know we are still in the middle of a recession (even if the government says it’s over). Jobless claims are up, GNP is down, and most importantly for marketers, ad spends are projected to fall a whopping four percent if not more. Trust in corporate America is nonexistent. Things are bleak. Blah blah blah.

It is easy to curl into the fetal position and wait out until the warmer economy bubbles up, but if you do you are missing out! You see, friends, recession actually *creates* opportunity. When there is less money, marketers have license to be more creative. The people who are scared will retreat into the traditional, boring methods of marketing -- another billboard? Now? Those who think outside the bun a little bit will have the chance to be creative and thrive.

Sounds easy, but at this point you're probably wondering how you can be part of the "in crowd" who makes a lot of cashola during the downturn. Let me, a guy who studies Punk Marketing, give you a few tips. Key is to keep in mind a few straightforward concepts and the rest will take care of itself with finesse and vigor!

First, you have to realize that consumers -- not the media or marketers – control spending. What do consumers want? They want you to be there for them. They want to know they are buying a good product. Consumers want you to hold their hands and show them what to buy. They want to feel like they are part of American-led innovations—explaining why the new “blowing air iPhone App is so crucial”. In the late spring a Brooks Brothers ad titled Generations of Style appeared as though clipped from a 1949 Life magazine. The message: "We are an American institution and you know it’s good to buy from us, men!"


So, once you've determined the right angle with which to position your product, don’t forget that marketing your wares in a dark year is like fighting a war but less bloody. We are cajoling attention from people who are much happier not leaving their homes—witness why Adult Swim does so well—and when we capture them we shower them with worship. After you get consumers to consume, you must reward them for taking the plunge. We reassure them. It’s like holding someone’s hand.

So, now you know how to position your product, how to treat your customers after you get them to buy, but how about the actual marketing?

Tone is now more crucial than ever. Your message will not work if you say it with the wrong way. Your message should be warm during the cold days of less money to spend. Fill people with comfort and fuzziness—as Tim Sanders famously said “Love is the killer app.” People need to feel good, not adequate, about what they’re buying.

Take a recent Crown Royal TV spot –wherein the typical alpha male pool shark wins every game at the pub, but leaves early every night to shoot a game or two with his dad, while enjoying Crown Royal. Isn't that precious? Kind of makes me want to spend $35 on a fifth of bourbon, just to feel better.

Beyond the message and its position and tone, there is the very practical aspect of selling itself that many marketers completely miss: focus groups do not represent your customers. Your customers represent your customers. Listen to what they say! Do not make your customers feel stupid by telling them what research presumes they are thinking! The Original Punk Marketer Henry Ford once said that if he listened to what his customers thought they wanted, they would have said "a faster horse."

Your message had better be crafted in a way that provides people with the idea that they are getting something of value when they purchase your product instead of just a low price. Cheap is what chickens do. People want to feel they are getting a deal on something that might in another time costs a wee bit more.

Nissan's 2009 move is an excellent illustration of this. It started selling a $12,000 car -- the Nissan Versa -- for just under $10,000. All of the sudden, car buyers were getting a deal -- a brand new car for below what is considered a psychological barrier of a five digit price. Excellent, Nissan.

The line between low-cost and value is often precarious and gets complicated even further by the fact that in a recession consumers are not compelled to toss out large amounts of money on anything. Big ticket items are not the big sellers. Huge capital outlays are for the birds. You need to pick and choose what kinds of products fit the bill: Instead of selling that 52" plasma, how about selling a Blu-ray disc with a packet of microwave popcorn?

Just as consumer spending is principled these days, all recession marketing must be similarly principled. Stick to your customers like your job depends on it, because it does. Now is perhaps not the best time to be over-aggressively pursuing new customers. You need to hang on to your existing customers. They already love you with their wallets!

Creativity plays a big part of the successful recession marketer's arsenal. There are a few sources of media left that consumers listen to without grimacing and the Internet is number one. This is, remember, the year of the dying newspaper. There is no excuse for dismissing the online world as fringe. Start using some nascent methods to get the message out. Twitter, Wordpress, Facebook, FriendFeed, Wikipedia, your own blog – these are now clichés and yet they work. Using them is no longer optional –it is quite compulsory. Every one of your customers uses a computer to do everything but sleep (that’s coming). Don't you think you ought to be where the action is? And remember that eerybody and their Mom carries a PDA like a blankie– I am sure TIME mag will feature the device as its Thing of The Year. So get “them” via their trusty mobile device.

Along with a solid, disciplined message consumers want clear and concise choices. Don't confuse them with options and bells and whistles. Be one thing – provide one wonderful asset. Tylenol sells no less than 14 kinds of sinus medications and confuses the crap out of me. I can’t even buy toothpaste anymore there are so many on the shelf (sorry about the breath). Don't make buyers need to become experts on the ins and outs of your product. Hit them over the head with focused and deft marketing, and they’ll thank you by going Ok, I’ll take one..

The well-informed, principled, disciplined, and savvy marketer has to keep in mind that the science marketing is not always the most important thing that your company has in mind. There is not a lot of money to do anything! You absolutely must choose your battles. Meaning: you aren't going to get every dollar you want. That's where that noggin of yours comes into play. Didn't get the $15,000 you wanted for billboards? No big deal. What can you do with $2,000 for AdWords on a great and unexpected content site? Do not let money be the excuse for running yet another lame contest, ok!

Economic conditions are bad—yet even a cynic knows there is hope on the horizon. They get bad, they get better, they get bad, they get better. In tough times you learn and then display your true character—and, voila, you earn your stripes as the marketing pro. Stick to what we know works well and ride out this downturn. This can be your time to shine -- if you choose to make it your time to really—really—shine!

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Richard Laermer is CEO of New York's RLM pr, representing, among others, e-Miles, Epic Advertising, Yodlee, Revolution Money, Group Commerce, Smith & Nephew, and HotChalk. He was host of TLC's cult program Taking Care of Business and speaks on trends and marketing for corporate groups. You can read Laermer on The Huffington Post and on the mischievous but all-too-necessary Bad Pitch Blog. For more like this, follow him on @laermer.

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