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14 February 2009/
Wally on branding during the downturn
by Ben Knapp at 6:49 am 14 February 2009
Is this the worst recession you’ve seen in your lifetime?
I’ve been through several unfortunately. My memory is that when these things start, people tend to think it is the worst ever. Maybe this time they will be proved right. I certainly hope that’s not the case. I find it difficult to remember what previous ones were like, but you find your way through them. Some companies die, but people make it through.
How do companies tend to react when the economic climate takes such a turn for the worse?
The immediate reaction from most companies, of course, is to cut everything. They see a likely sales drop and want to reduce overheads. The natural reaction is often to cut the marketing budget. But it is also the case that in a time of recession, people are much choosier about their purchases. So an organisation that has something special and particular to say, especially one that promotes itself effectively, can actually take advantage of a slowdown and come out on top. Take Jaguar, for example, who started operations in 1934. They were offering something entirely different and the fact that there was a depression didn’t seem to make any difference.
When times are hard, a branding exercise is almost seen as a luxury. Is this fair?
Not at all. Short term measures are mandatory but when you are on an even keel again you start to think longer term. The first three months of any kind of recession inevitably elicit short term reactions. Everybody right now is in a state of controlled panic; nobody knows what they are preparing for. People are scrambling to do something to mitigate the effect of this slowdown. Whether it’s looking to product innovation or new markets, everyone has to do something. So once this initial panic is over, you are still going to need consultancies. If you are going to launch something now to benefit from the recession, you may want to be quicker about it to capture greater market share. There are going to be collapses and mergers. All of this is going to necessitate some expedient rebranding, so I hardly see it as a luxury.
Can you see any positives arising from the current situation, particularly for those involved in the world of branding? Will businesses be forced to improve to survive?
There are advantages to shakeouts of this sort. This time around we were so focused on consumption that this will chasten us. So maybe, in a moral sense, this is good for society.
There are also going to be a huge number of mergers and takeovers and acquisitions, so there will be a requirement to examine how these new organisations project themselves. In the service sector especially I think we will see huge changes. High touch will make a resurgence while high tech is going to become subordinate. Relationships and relationship management is going to be a big thing there. In many ways the sector has become intolerably inefficient. They have become overly reliant on technology and sacrificed the relationship aspect, which is crucial. And financial services, of course, are now going to have to present themselves very differently – probably with more humility.
Consultancies are often the first to suffer when budgets are cut, and branding consultancies even more so as the marketing budget is often first to go. Is this fair?
Branding should not be part of the marketing budget. If the main carrier of a service brand is the people who work there, then it’s the HR or internal marketing budget that’s relevant. Branding conventionally seems to be allied with marketing but is in fact is associated with a number of disciplines.
Is globalisation going to be a casualty of the recession?
The pace of globalisation has in no way decreased as a result of the recession; if anything, it has increased. So a global reach and understanding is a likely key to success. Nobody, and nowhere, is immune.
Will the green agenda become less important as the world scrambles to cope with the effect of the recession?
Normally, a short-term response is what is required to address an economic crisis. This time, the long-term solutions are the answer to the short-term problems now. It is a question of finding the correct long-term solutions and then waiting it out. Sustainability is very much part of that answer. Take the automotive industry, for example, where we will probably see a revolution as opposed to an evolution. Cars are going to become cheaper and a lot less hazardous because it happens to be in everyone’s interest, not because of some altruistic intentions.