Marketing Strategy
Marketing in a Recession: Don’t Despair, Never Fear

Marketing in a Recession: Don’t Despair, Never Fear

September 30, 2023
9 min read

You see it in the headlines—a recession is looming.

Everywhere, executives are planning for dark days ahead. Many businesspeople tend to think the “smart” thing to do is to hunker down and wait for the uncertainty to pass.

But here’s the thing—there’s more uncertainty behind the coming uncertainty. We are always swimming in uncertainty.

To willingly and intentionally do nothing is to disregard the purpose of a business, which is to grow. Crazy fact: More than half of the companies in the Fortune 500 in the year 2000 no longer exist—a clear indication that conditions are always changing and that a company that stands still will be passed by.

52% of the fortune 500 firms since 2000 are gone

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For us marketers, this should set off alarm bells. We have chosen a career in which our raison d’etre is getting people to notice and trust our company.

In times of recession or even economic headwinds, CEOs and CMOs around the world are prone to ask: should I invest in marketing or save on marketing costs?

After all, marketing budgets are often one of the first things to get cut when future cash flow is threatened, right?

It turns out, that while some brands panic and slash all marketing spending, many others think about how to grow.

That means these uncertain days are not the time to duck our heads and do nothing. This is the time to stand tall and act with courage. We need to move boldly ahead with messaging that resonates, tactics that separate us from the pack and a willingness to realize we can’t be all things to all people. It’s time to stand for something so you become known for something.

Today, brands have a great option: Rather than paying for billboard campaigns and pricey TV ads, they can spend their marketing budgets in something that’s much more affordable and effective: content marketing.

If you’re a regular reader of our content, you may have noticed that whether there’s an economic recession, inflation or a pandemic, we focus a “business as usual” approach. That’s what helps us: consistency. Creating content, helping our customers, taking walks, doing yoga — and bourbon! OK, maybe a little too much of that.

During the height of COVID-19, I wrote an article about what to do if your marketing event gets canceled after speaking to a very anxious marketing event organizer. And someone commented that I was being opportunistic. So, I went back to my normal marketing of helpful, practical advice.

But then I started feeling like it’s worse NOT to address what we’re all feeling about our work as marketers: is marketing even appropriate in times of worldwide fear?

I have said so many times: ask most people what marketing is, and they will answer “advertising” or “promotion.” But it is so much more than that! Marketing should be a conversation. Our approach should be one of helping over selling.

Again, the pandemic brought out the best in almost every brand. This Guinness ad for St. Patrick’s Day was awesome:

So what should marketers do in tough times?

Quick Takeaways:

  • It’s understandable that some brands want to cut budgets during times of fear.
  • Smart marketers are investing in content for growth and taking market share from their competition.
  • Content marketing is not only affordable, but it’s also highly effective, especially in times of economic crisis.

Why Marketing Is Very Important During a Downturn

The bottom line is that a slowdown in economic activity affects businesses and consumers alike.

During a recession, businesses start losing money and may be forced to make savings through job cuts. As workers worry about the stability of their employment, they tend to be more careful with their money and spend less, and so the cycle continues.

Faced with this uncertainty, businesses need to be careful with their budgets and make spending cuts where possible.

Cutting down on marketing may seem like an obvious place to claw some money back. But this kind of strategy can be shortsighted.

Businesses that stop marketing during a downturn may find that they’ve lost their customers to competitors when things start picking up.


During a recession, when there’s an unprecedented level of fear and uncertainty, it’s more important than ever for brands to provide their audiences with the information they want and need. I don’t think we should stop everything and wait it out. But my advice for most marketers who aren’t selling beer, bread or toilet paper is to stop selling and blindly pushing your product.

By investing in marketing during this time, you can build trust and brand recognition with your audience, while providing them with something of real value and importance.

Keep Loving Your Customers

My advice is to reach out to every one of your customers now. Or have your sales and client service teams send personal notes to check in on your customers. Maybe you think they don’t want to hear from you. But now is the best time to thank them for their support and their business. Sure, maybe your CEO wants to send an email to everyone about the crisis. But we’ve seen enough of those. just check in. Ask how they are holding up.

Connect with Your Team

Get together with your marketing colleagues and brainstorm new ideas. Reach out to your best friends in the sales organization and find out what needs to be updated. Get time with executives and stakeholders across the company to reset expectations.

Everyone is feeling the same way: worried, anxious, afraid. So reach out and connect with them personally. If you don’t already have one, check into the opportunity for mental health services for your company. make sure everyone is aware of tele-health options for doctors. This may sound like HR stuff, but we’re great communicators in marketing. Let’s help everyone out!

Stay Positive and Optimistic

Things will get better. I try and find the stories of hope that keep me positive. I think about all the healthcare workers putting their lives at risk to help others. I think about all the volunteers who have signed up to offer free mental health support.

Marketing doesn’t seem nearly as important as all that right. So let’s keep it in perspective. We still have an important job to do. But like those on the front lines of every crisis, let’s just try and help out a little more – even in our marketing!

Embrace Courageous Marketing

Marketing with courage requires a willingness to stick your neck out. Any brand you admire surely embraced risk in its marketing somewhere along the way. Marketing is a business discipline intended to hit grand slams, so we can’t be afraid to swing for the fences.

Courageous marketing is rooted in Why You Exist. It takes a stand it believes in, knowing competitors—and maybe even some customers—will disagree with the stand.

Courageous marketing doesn’t follow what everyone else is doing. It doesn’t get bogged down in industry best practices. It is messaging that is unique, powerful and brave. It is bold, but not reckless. It isn’t angry, but it is defiant. It requires an acknowledgment that you’re not going to make everyone happy.

Courageous marketing is having a differentiated message and sharing it in a unique way.

A process for courageous marketing

It’s one thing to say, “let’s be courageous.” That doesn’t make it automatically happen. It helps to put a structure around it to make the act of being courageous in our work more tangible.

There are four pillars of courageous marketing: Knowledge, Confidence, Action, Evolution.

You have to know your organization, and you need to have an understanding of the marketplace. This requires experience and education.

Building up your confidence muscle is vitally important—when you embrace courageous marketing, slings and arrows are sure to come your way from both inside and outside your organization. When the going gets tough, you have to have faith that your position is correct. The best way to do this is to collect as much information as you can ahead of time, and to vet your initiative internally with leaders who can either back you up or take you down. You need to position yourself to credibly say, “I hear you, but I’m right about this.”

Now it’s time to build and launch your initiative. Creating this new approach to marketing will take some time—you might need to put new processes in place, hire for new positions, uncover new skills and spend a ton of time brainstorming and creating. You also need to think about how this gets launched into the world … and then launch it.

The fourth pillar is Evolution. We know that we never get something 100 percent correct the first time we try it. We need to adapt and continually innovate so that our courageous efforts stay fresh. But we also need to be wary of not overreacting and overcorrecting. This can be a difficult balance to find, but if you’ve built up your confidence, you should be positioned to stay the course.

Is a recession coming? Maybe. Will there be other tumult in the world? Definitely.

Should we hide until the trouble passes? Only if you want to endanger your business and your livelihood.

Reconsider Your Marketing Mix

I would seriously consider pulling any outbound advertising. Shift those funds into content promotion. Amplify your best thought leadership. Share your articles. We do this for a number of our clients and many are doubling down on content promotion.

Your annual event is probably not happening if it hasn’t been canceled already. Consider how to make it an amazing virtual experience. Bring in experts in your industry to speak to the latest trends. Get your customers to share their success. And PLEASE create a plan to use all that content and re-purpose it into articles you can share on your website.

Webinars are certainly another great place to start. Setup monthly sessions to stay connected with your prospects. One thing that may be a concern: so many companies are making this shift. Think about how you can be different? Use professional speakers. Conduct an ask-me-anything. Maybe even offer a prospect some free advice or assessments.

Thinking about your marketing culture and mission might seem like the last thing you want you and your team working on. But long term thinking is exactly what we all need to do right now. Maybe even conduct a brand storytelling session on who your hero is (it should be your customers), what villain can you help them defeat?

Use Content to Cement Your Brand Presence

Times of economic crisis are not ideal to be focusing on sales. While it’s natural to want to try and bring your sales figures back up, your main focus should be on building your brand.

Even if people aren’t spending right now, they will be again eventually. And if you do your marketing right, they’ll remember your brand when the time comes.

This is the ideal opportunity to start building your brand presence and authority by publishing high-quality, useful, and shareable content that will build your following and increase trust.


Remember that your customers’ needs will have changed, and it’s important that you’re responsive to these changes. If you’re not sure exactly how you can serve your audience best at this time, ask them.

In the first few weeks of lockdown during COVID, hundreds of companies offered digital products and services for free or at a significant discount to provide assistance to those suddenly working and schooling at home.

When things returned to normal, consumers didn’t forget the homeschooling site that gave them free worksheets or the virtual conferencing software that cut their membership fees.

But you don’t have to be actually giving away a paid-for product to benefit. People are spending more time online and reading more than ever before, and an article that has useful information or makes them think could be just as valuable.

Speaking specifically of content marketing, here are 3 brands who have taken very different approaches over the years.

winners and losers in content

At the top right, you have a company that has thought about content marketing for years. But they just can’t seem to get their whole team on board. And their traffic is going down and down. Interestingly, they are in an industry where there is a ton of education required. The competition is creating that content. And winning all the traffic and leads.

The bottom right is a company with a great strategy. But because they aren’t following the strategy and allow random acts of content to drive their publishing schedule, they are somewhat flat in organic traffic. So they try to make up with it through paid search.

On the right is a company that just keeps on investing. Slow and steady, she wins the race of organic search traffic because this company never stops creating customer-focused content week after week.

The biggest takeaway? Stick to your content marketing plan!

I spent a lot of time putting together the data and analysis in the article on the results of our approach to marketing ourselves.

And even now, our clients are increasing their spend with us and creating more helpful content. Not all of it is based on the virus. Just helpful tips on working at home, dealing with stress, staying positive. Our clients range from technology to healthcare to finance.

And they are all sticking to the plan. Creating thought leadership. And activating their employees.

Why a Recession Is the Ideal Time to Invest in Content Marketing

Unlike many other types of marketing, content marketing is a slow burner. You most likely won’t see any dramatic increase in sales or customers from publishing a single piece of content, no matter how good it is.

Content takes time to develop its full benefits for your business, and you need a significant amount of it too. While one blog post may not do much for you, if you publish three times a week for a year, it almost certainly will do.

Right now – while business may be slower than usual and your other marketing activities may be on hold – is the perfect time to double down on your content marketing efforts.

Every piece of content you publish now acts like a single brick of your online presence, which may well turn into an empire further down the road when the economy has stabilized.

By consistently publishing high-quality content that provides value to your audience, underlines your company’s mission and values, and offers solutions to your customers’ problems, you’ll be investing in a bank of assets that will pay dividends for many years to come.

Need help weathering the storm?

If you are ready to get more traffic to your site with quality content published consistently, check out our Blog Writing & Management Service. Get started today – and generate more traffic and leads for your business!

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula", and Founder of Marketing Insider Group. Recognized as a Top Content Marketing expert and Digital Marketing Leader, Michael leverages his experience from roles in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as his leadership in leading teams and driving growth for thriving startups. Today, Michael delivers empowering keynotes on marketing and leadership, and facilitates actionable workshops on content marketing strategy. Connect with Michael today.