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Marketing lessons and weapons from the recession, part 1: brand alliances


Marketing lessons and weapons from the recession, part 1: brand alliances


What the customer believes is the reality we live in, writes Ken Murray, in this first article in a series on marketing lessons and weapons for tough times. The first weapon to unleash is to think outside of your business and seek a brand alliance.


My first foray into marketing was during the peak of the GFC. Like many of us marketers, I felt the hit of the GFC and the consequent economic downturn.

It should be remembered, however, that the best advances are made in times of war. We have witnessed some inspiring works in the case studies here at Marketing, some which were original ideas and some which stood on the shoulders of giants. Similarly, I’ve learnt some big lessons and picked up a few weapons along the way that I want to share with you today.

Now, any of you who took economics as a double can see that the data is telling us the ‘recession’ is over, or at least abating. The experts are converging towards the general consensus in Australia and more recently the USA – we got through it. But, do your customers believe that? Does your boss believe it? Often it seems they are not acting like it.


Lesson: The distinction between what expert economists believe and the customer’s situation

Big industries in Australia have undergone some serious ‘restructuring,’ affecting thousands of jobs. People weren’t just fired, their place on the organisational chart was erased. These have been coming up repeatedly since the theoretical peak of the ‘recession’ in 2010 and have not appeared to slow down.

Yet the experts know the ‘recession’ is ending, so is this simply a lag effect of resting on yesterday’s laurels? Are we seeing the delayed repercussions of marketing and advertising contractions or are people simply more selective and careful with their money.

It would seem that the foremost experts in economics are telling us the ‘recession’ is over, yet many businesses continue to believe and behave as if every day is the worst it has been. Most likely this behaviour stems from the customers themselves who do not believe the ‘recession’ to be over.

So what matters? What the experts say or what your customer believes? I think the latter actually has more relevant clout.

If your customer believes they are in a ‘recession’ then they are.

The implication of this: it will take more value to sway a buying decision. Further, it will take more impressions and therefore more quality communication, yet most businesses are known to cut back their marketing and advertising budget (yep, we all know how annoying that is).

If senior management believe the business is a likely victim of the ‘recession’, then they will be looking for ways to cut costs and further contract spending usually in the form of redundancies.

Let’s look at the industries that are traditionally the first casualties consequent of the ‘recession’: travel, entertainment, printing, furniture retail, construction and new automobile dealers.

These are some of the common industries that really feel the pain during an economic ‘recession’ (or any mention of it). And understandably. Consumers who are nervous about their job security, may not be inclined to travel, refurnish their house, or buy a brand new car.

Likewise, in the B2B sector, if the business is contracting they’re not looking to advertise, or build a new office complex.

What do travel, entertainment, furniture retail and new cars have in common? There are free or low comparative cost alternatives.

So what do people spend their money on? Simply put, things they need or really want. This suggests that now your USP must be sharper than ever. (I go into detail on how to create an effective USP in my previous article.) I acknowledge that’s easier said than done, so what if you nailed it and it’s still not enough?


Weapon: Increase your offer’s value through a brand alliance or cross-promotions

When my boss contracted the entire advertising budget, the company I worked for in 2010 went dark, no more direct marketing (mail outs and SMS), no more cinema ads, no more entertainment magazines, no one to hand out flyers, brochures, cards. There was no point in talking, no one was listening. I felt pretty stuck.

My hands were tied behind my back, but there was one idea I hadn’t tried that was easy to get over the line because it wouldn’t need any capital. (Read my article on getting ideas over the line here.) This is how to reverse engineer a great joint venture:

1. Understand the customer

It might seem a good joint venture would combine two companies who do the same thing well to make it great, however the strategy that works is to simply consider what a customer does before they purchase your product or use your service and/or what they do after.

2. Zoom out and see the forest for the trees

Don’t get caught on the details of your product – look at the result or direct benefit the customer is seeking. Simple example: is a gym there to let people work out or help people feel attractive and healthy? If you can zoom out and get some altitude on the result the customer is seeking, it should help stir your creative problem solving.

3. Now daisy chain complementary industries

It’s usually clear who you need to approach for a joint venture. I am yet to work with a company that did not have a complementary business to partner with. In B2C you’re spoilt for choice – look at all the people selling bathroom tiles who offer a holiday to Asia.

This is acceptable, but not ideal. Your cross-promotions or joint ventures should synergise the complementary specialities of yours and another business. Think macroeconomics – who has the comparative advantage to add to your value proposition?

Here are six quick examples:

  • Lorna Jane + Curves Gym
  • Red Bull + nightclubs
  • Wedding venue  + wedding organisers
  • Car dealer + insurance company
  • Real estate agents + mortgage broker
  • Travel agent + airline + hotel chain


Your business is usually not the only one on the battlefield jockeying for attention. Selling a proposal for a mutually beneficial agreement or even one-off event to a fellow business person (or better yet marketer) can often be easier than selling to a customer. I don’t know about you, but show me the cost per qualified impression and if it’s stock and not cash even better! I’m a pretty easy sell.


In summary

Lesson: What the customer believes is the reality we live in.

Weapon: If you cannot create enough value by positioning your offer or product, think outside of your business and seek a joint venture.

Three key components of a successful joint venture:

  • Start with understanding the customer,
  • are inspired by zooming out to the direct benefit or result, and
  • must be relevant or daisy chained from complementary businesses who have a comparative advantage.


Most importantly (although somewhat philosophical), don’t wait for the market to swing back to the good ol’ days. Create your own opportunities. Let’s play to win.



Ken Murray

Ken Murray is the director of marketing for MEI Group, having now clocked over seven years of senior marketing experience specialising in the industrial sectors and B2B.  Ken's background stems from a keen interest in pattern recognition and problem solving, which would eventually lead to an academic background in sociology (the 'why' question) to strategic marketing and business (the 'how' question). He believes success in business and marketing is about connecting the individual customer's 'why' to the business' 'how'. Next step is to operate efficiently and then you've got results, which is all he's interested in. Follow him @Kengetsitdone.

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