Why are you waiting for things to improve? 10 ways for middle-market brands to tackle austerity now

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10 ways for middle-market brands to tackle austerity nowBy Mark Di Somma

There’s nothing to suggest that the global “downturn” is about to upturn any time soon. We’re in the middle of a sustained bear and nothing in the economic news – America’s debt, China’s slowdown, the flat-footed European economy, Britain’s economic woes, commodity trends – suggests a sudden and universal change of fortunes.

Austerity is the normal. It’s not a market trend. It is the market.

And yet so many businesses say that they’re holding on and waiting for things to change for the better. Once the economy improves, we hear, they’ll be able to start growing again. That implies they do not see adaptation as their responsibility. They continue to apply the same models and mindsets that they have been applying. They are literally waiting for light to show its face at the end of the tunnel.

A better strategy would be to adjust to the tone of the times we now face. Too many brands are trying to sell to a market sentiment they hope for rather than one that realistically prevails. Setting aside the more obvious market strategies of bargain brands and luxury manufacturers, how do middle-market brands attract buyers and gain preference today?

Start by recognising the human factors:

Everyone still loves to be inspired. Excitement is a timeless sentiment especially in times of perceived bleakness. But the adrenalin rush of naked materialism is perhaps less appropriate today than the powerful sentiments of empowerment, hope and resilience. Materialism is increasingly seen as pre-GFC. People still want to believe. Human nature is to look forward. The key for brands will be how they tap into that in order to tie momentum and a realistic sense of progress to what they’re offering.

The familiar is even more important. In a world where change is trumpeted in the press, instability pushes many towards what they’ve known; the things that feel ‘proven’ to them. A recent survey by JWT, cited here, suggests the over-riding priorities for most people are health, time with family and control over their lives. People want to care, and they want to feel good about the things they care about. Tap that.

Rituals, habits and rewards have renewed significance. This is very much an extension of the previous point. People enjoy the familiarity and the immediacy of doing things they know, love doing and are comfortable doing with or alongside others – especially when they work in times that see them under increasing pressure. Rituals also suggest a renewed interest in planning, in thinking ahead and having things to look forward to. A beer at six is a habit. A family Christmas or a regular holiday is both a ritual and a reward. It requires thinking ahead to fulfil something that has a specific timeframe for all involved. Provide things for people to look forward to.

Local matters. Another extension of the above. Home-grown brands feel like “one of us”, are familiar, contribute to the wishes to build strong communities and to give back, and come with [unstated] implications of less risk. People draw strength and comfort from what happens in their vicinity.

People love a bargain, but not at any price. Research by Trajectory suggests that recession-sensitive consumers are more aware of price and less loyal (no surprises there), but still prefer brands that couple value with values. Brands need to be responsible, and to be seen to be responsible – in the broader sense of the word.

Now apply those insights to your strategies.

  1. Give people not just real hope, but a refreshed sense of hope. The hunt for happiness has shifted from what people own to what people have around them, but it’s still very much present.
  2. Raise their adrenalin rate.
  3. Give them more of what they know you for (or more particularly more of what they choose you for) – perhaps with a twist, perhaps not.
  4. Suggest [new] things to do that they will enjoy doing, or new ways of doing what they enjoy doing now.
  5. Give them new things to value but in ways that reflect what they want to value these days.
  6. Act responsibly – and call on others to do the same.
  7. Demonstrate that you ‘belong’ here (wherever ‘here’ is).
  8. Give buyers what they feel they can afford or deserve without making them feel cheap.
  9. Encourage them to think ahead by offering a pay-off for planning.
  10. Give them rewards that sincerely acknowledge the effort they’ve put in.

Combine to compete

None of these ideas is new. And one could well argue that no one idea will work by itself. Rather the competitive opportunity for your brand lies in how you develop your own mix of these sentiments to re-incline consumers to what you offer via what you are seen to stand for.

Be a provocative, exciting, proactive, responsible, relevant, practical, familiar, valuable and evolving presence in people’s lives. That’s always going to be a lot more interesting and competitive for your brand and to your customers than waiting for the world’s economists to start whistling a happier tune.

More of my thinking on market leadership here:

The strategy of radical beauty
Market leadership: you can’t lead as a brand if you follow another brand.

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Image of “Austerity ahead” road sign by 401(K) 2012, sourced from Flickr.

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