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February 13, 2009

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Don't Skimp on Their Ad Budgets

Published: November 26, 2008 in Knowledge@Wharton





With corporate managers under enormous pressure to control costs and maintain liquidity in the current credit crisis, advertising budgets often appear to be a dispensable luxury in the struggle to survive. Executives who succumb to that temptation, however, put the long-term future of their companies at risk, according to Wharton faculty and advertising experts.



"The first reaction is to cut, cut, cut, and advertising is one of the first things to go," says Wharton marketing professor Peter Fader, adding that as companies slash advertising in a downturn, they leave empty space in consumers' minds for aggressive marketers to make strong inroads. Today's economy "provides an unusual opportunity to differentiate yourself and stand out from the crowd," says Fader, "but it takes a lot of courage and convincing to get senior management on board with that."



According to Wharton marketing professor Leonard Lodish, with demand slack for advertising services, the cost of these services goes down, making advertising expenditures all the more defensible in a bad business climate. "If your company has something to say that is relevant in this environment, it's going to be more efficient to say it now than to say it in better times," says Lodish.



Research shows that companies that consistently advertise even during recessions perform better in the long run. A McGraw-Hill Research study looking at 600 companies from 1980 to 1985 found that those businesses which chose to maintain or raise their level of advertising expenditures during the 1981 and 1982 recession had significantly higher sales after the economy recovered. Specifically, companies that advertised aggressively during the recession had sales 256% higher than those that did not continue to advertise.



For companies that do stay the course and continue to advertise into a recession or increase their promotional activities, the key is to craft messages that reflect the times and describe how their product or service benefits the consumer. For example, companies might be tempted to emphasize price in a recession, but that only works for companies like Costco and Walmart that are built around a core strategy of providing low prices year after year, says Lodish. He points to the current Walmart campaign, "Save Money. Live Better," as a successful approach to the

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