Sing the Blues: How Marketers Can Turn up for Consumers in a Downturn

Diverse cultures, international communication concept.

Shoppers expect brands to step up during the cost-of-living crisis. But many marketers are working with smaller budgets. When a big campaign is off the table, how else can you connect with customers? Start with your language, says Aidan Clifford, Senior Creative Consultant at The Writer.

A worried man adjusts the strap of his helmet on a winter’s day

He pushes off on a skateboard, only to fall to the tarmac with a cry. A soundtrack starts up: ‘All The Small Things’ by Blink-182.

It’s an unexpected opening to a Christmas ad. But that’s exactly why it worked for John Lewis. Their usual approach of dragons, aliens and Elton John would have felt out of step with the times. Much better to tell the story of a loving foster family, according to most marketers.

Opting for the real over the opulent – can we learn from this strategy? What does it look like outside of a blockbuster campaign?

‘Show kindness’ versus ‘go and buy things’

Claire Pointon, John Lewis’s customer director, shares the thinking behind the ad:

This advert is not about ‘go and buy things’. This advert’s about saying ‘how can you as an individual show kindness to someone else who may need it’. I think that’s quite an important message at Christmas.

It’s also an important message during a recession. As the cost of living bites, consumers will reject images of unobtainable luxury and unsubscribe from shouty mailers. So we shouldn’t be writing like it’s 2018, like everything’s swell and Elton’s tickling the ivories.

Business as usual won’t hack it in 2023

According to Havas Media Group and their Cost of Living study, people want brands to give “tangible, meaningful solutions” to the crisis. Or – to cut the fancy marketing-speak – people want a little help.

It follows that writers need a new mindset to serve the brands they work for. Pushy promoters aren’t welcome, so they’ll have to learn to be humble helpers instead. Make the change and you’ll get a warm reception – and boost your brand to boot.

Be a helper

The advice is easy to give, considerably harder to follow. Helpful writers do things differently. And by ‘things’ we mean the whole marketing schtick – positioning, promoting, communicating… the lot.

So let’s break it down. We’ll explain how to shift from being a regular salesperson to a helper. We’ll go through three practical steps. And, to stay in our lane, we’ll focus on writing.

Three ways you can turn up for readers in a downturn

1. Position products to reflect how shoppers are thinking right now

Quick question – how many layers are you wearing? Heating feels so expensive at the moment, people would rather jump into a jumper than twiddle a thermostat. And that’s just one way the busted economy has changed our behaviour. Overall, we’re spending less, switching to cheaper brands, and scouting around for discounts.

With all this behaviour change happening, writers should check they still understand their readers. Your audience might be using (and thinking about) your product in unexpected ways. Take lipstick for example.

Sales of lippy are healthy: nearly 10% higher than last year. And that makes sense. Shoppers tend to cheer themselves up with affordable luxuries when they can’t splurge on big-ticket items. As Boots’ managing director Seb James puts it, “People might not get a new outfit but they may get a new lipstick.”

That kind of insight belongs in a positioning statement (those nifty paragraphs that sum up a product’s position in the market). Boots might cross out ‘an everyday picker-upper’ to write a statement that’s truer to the moment, perhaps ‘a magic wand that gives workdays a holiday feeling’. Aspirational and accurate.

If you haven’t revisited your positioning statements in a while, now’s the time. They might be stuck in a sunnier past.

Brands to learn from:

  • Hellmann’s – who positioned their mayo as the solution to food waste.
  • Trainline – who talk about rail travel as saving the planet.


2. Choose facts over flash in your marketing

Market splash cash to do two things:

  1. Attract attention.
  2. Persuade buyers.

But riddle me this. At a time when marketing budgets are up and ad spend is down, how are marketers using their money?

Writing content – and lots of it.

Brands are turning out a lot of words. American Express cover money management. Dove speak about self-esteem. Finish publish articles about the best way to load a dishwasher.

While these blog posts might be less glamourous than billboards, they do attract attention. Free advice and resources draw visitors to websites – websites that also have lengthy product pages. And, together, these two types of content make consumers reach for their wallets.

Only a few, intrepid readers will reach the FAQ section of a 1000-word webpage. Yet Finish has one for each of their tablets. They know it’s better to provide too much information than too little. In a recession, shoppers are hungry for facts: seven out of ten are making active, rational choices based on quality and functionality.

How should you respond, as a writer? You should be making a clear case for your products. Serve up plenty of reasons to buy – from the practical to the purposeful, from the economic to the enlightened. Ainhoa Robles, who leads brand experience for Finish, shares her approach:

There are a lot of ways you can offer value and, for us, we concentrate on telling our story about how we are always striving to be as kind to the planet as possible. That helps build up user trust and loyalty, and it also introduces us to new customers who see that value is about more than the price, it’s about the whole brand experience.

Brands to learn from:

  • Dove – whose mission is educating young people about body confidence.
  • Finish – who ran a purposeful campaign with National Geographic.


3. Chase loyalty through exemplary customer comms

Here we are, talking about Christmas campaigns that started in November. And it feels normal. Probably because we’ve been surrounded by festive promotions at every turn. Target and Walmart have stated their reasons for starting early: they want consumers to spread the expense of Christmas shopping. It’s a thoughtful (and commercially astute) gesture.

The big retailers will be pushing deals through customer comms, no doubt. But writers should be doing more than distributing discount codes. Just look at pet accessory brand Wild One.

The Wild One team takes feedback through emailed surveys. They learn about their audience through social media polls. They send texts to give loyal customers early access to collections. And they write heartfelt notes by hand.

Message by message, these comms build rapport. Consumers become co-creators – people whose opinions influence the design of harnesses, collars and leashes. Good for retention, that. When you’re truly involved in the story of a business, it’s hard to walkie away.

Brands to learn from:

  • Wild One – who bring consumers on side to such a degree they feel like insiders.
  • Shelter – who released a set of billboard-sized memes about the cost-of-living crisis.

Your readers might be hard up, but they’re still looking for a good time

There’s another reason to admire Wild One. They’re just plain fun. They review pet names, invent games for doggy playtime, and partner with fashion designers. They’ve decided that working through a crisis isn’t an excuse to be dull and dreary.

Marketers and writers should take note. So I’ll leave you with this advice: entertain your readers and they’ll thank you for the (free) show. Change your tune, but keep telling stories like John Lewis. Dig deep and sing the blues.