Advertising During Uncertain Times: 11 Research Projects Tell the Same Story

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If you’re looking for hard data on what’s happened to brands that increased or decreased marketing during and after a crisis or recession, I’ve compiled the results of 11 studies into this article. Every single one shows the same thing: the companies that stayed the course or increased their marketing efforts grew at significant rates compared to their competitors.

Posted: May 26, 2020 10:40 AM
Updated: May 26, 2020 10:50 AM

Advertising in an Economic Downturn

During the last major economic downturn, ad spending dropped 13%.

2008 Advertising Spend Decline (Compared to Previous Year)
SOURCE: The Drum

  • -22% Newspaper
  • -28% Magazines
  • -11% Outdoor
  • -5% Television
  • -2% Online

Altogether, ad spending fell by 27%. For some businesses, they felt they had no choice. They were forced to cut expenses to stay in business. Others, however, went against the tide and increased their advertising spend.

A Harris Interactive/Yankelovich survey asked what people thought when companies advertise in an economic downturn, here’s what they found:

  • 86% report the advertiser was Top of Mind when they were ready to purchase
  • 86% feel better about the company’s commitments to products and services

Research: Maintain or Increase Ad Spending During a Downturn

The research has borne this out. Studies done in the 1920s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s showed that during recessions, sales and profits dropped off at companies that cut back on their advertising. When the economy recovered, those companies continued to suffer. While their competitors prospered, those cutting back on advertising during the downturn lagged behind the ones that maintain their ad budgets.

An examination of the downturn in the mid-70s, done in 1979 by ABP/Meldrum & Fewsmith, echoed the findings.

Companies which did not cut advertising expenditures during the recession years (1974-1975), experienced higher sales and net income during those two years and the two years following than companies which cut ad budgets in either or both recession years,” the study found.

A MarketSense study during the 1989-1991 recession demonstrated that companies and products that increased ad spending during the downturn saw strong sales growth.

  • Kraft salad dressing: Sales growth of 70%
  • Jif peanut butter: Sales growth of 50%
  • Coors Light: Sales growth of 15%
  • Bud Light: Sales growth of 16%
  • Pizza Hut: Sales growth of 61%
  • Taco Bell: Sales growth of 40%

McDonald’s opted to cut back during the recession. Their same-store sales dropped 28% while Pizza Hut and Taco Bell grew.

The best strategy for coping with a recession is balanced exploitation of ad spending for long-term consumer motivation, plus promotion for short term sales boosts,” the study concluded.

Other studies done in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s had the same results. Taken together, companies that remained aggressive with their advertising during downturns had overall sales 2.5X the average of others.

If you have the means, an investment now can mitigate damage and set you up for long-term prosperity.

Crisis Situation Can Reshuffle the Deck
There are risks and rewards during economic downturns. There will be winners and losers.

In the 1920s, Kellogg’s and Post dominated cereal sales. The two companies had nearly identical market shares. During the downtown, Post cut back their marketing while Kellogg’s maintained. Kellogg’s dramatically overperformed Post during the depression and immediately thereafter. It reshuffled the deck. Kellogg’s has been the dominant cereal brand for more than 9 decades now.

How companies deal with crises, such as economic downturns, often sets up the competitive landscape for years to come. A study by Bain & Company done after a recession showed some stark results:

More than 20% of companies that were previously in the bottom quartile in their industries moved to the top quartile.
More than 20% of companies considered “leadership companies” in the top quartile of financial performance moved to the bottom quartile.

Poor performers and High performers literally swapped places because of what they did during recessions.

Companies Can Grow Market Share in a Downturn

A study published in the Harvard Business Review of post-recession companies showed that two-thirds made major gains during a recession. Their gains didn’t come before the downturn or after, but rather during.

Many managers tolerate sub-par results during a recession, believing that their firms will accelerate past competitors once the economy recovers. This rarely happens,” the study concluded. “More than two-thirds of the companies that made major gains in our study period did so during a recession, not before or after.”

Growth in Recessionary Periods Continue Long-Term

This may be the bigger story: Of the companies that made major gains in revenue or profitability during the last recession, the Harvard Business Review reports that 70% sustained those gains. Of the companies that lost ground, less than a third were able to regain market share.

That’s what happened to Kmart in the last recession and they’ve never recovered. Wal-Mart continued to advertise and launched its “price rollback” strategy to dominate a market in which it already had a significant advantage.

An economic downturn is hard on all of us. There will be winners and losers. There’s also a significant opportunity to better serve our customers and re-position our businesses for long-term success.

As researchers at Bain & Company concluded: “These findings show that recessions are not so much ‘slowdowns’ as they are intense crucibles of opportunity.”

A Proven Strategy over Decades

As competitors are cutting their ad budgets, your messaging becomes even more prominent. There’s less clutter in general and less noise in your category. When you increase your spending while your competitors cut back, you can dramatically improve your share of voice and top of mind awareness.

Take Advantage of Price Volatility
Media companies are working through this situation as well. The best ones are doing what they can to help support local businesses. After all, we depend on each other for long-term success. There’s likely greater advertising efficiency due to special promotions and more flexibility in rates during this time.

Continuity = Awareness
Advertising works best cumulatively. The more you remind people who you are and what you do, the more top of mind awareness they have when it comes time to buy. If you stop, you may have to start over on the bottom rung of the ladder.

Advertising works when the right message is delivered with the right reach and right frequency.

Stay safe. If I can help you with your business strategy or advertising, I’m here to help.


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