Small Business

Don't Let Hard Times Derail Your Advertising


Even in a climate of fear, it's unwise to start knocking your rivals. And ads help reassure people it's business as normal

Life is not a zero-sum game.

O.K., maybe in politics it is. If your candidate wins, the other guy loses. That's one reason why political advertising tends to get increasingly malevolent as campaigns approach their climax. (Fasten your seat belt, because this year's campaign season looks to be worse than ever.)

In commerce, however, it's possible for competing companies to all win. Innovation and advances in productivity actually enlarge the pie, making it unnecessary for competitors to fight over the same slice. That's why vitriolic advertising is not the norm in a free economy.

Right now, however, our economy isn't so free. The mortgage meltdown and credit crisis have set heads spinning in Washington and in boardrooms across the country. We have no idea what will happen next, or if the "bailout" cure will be worse than the disease. All we know is that nobody knows what's coming, and in an uncertain environment fear becomes the common currency. As the bad news continues to unfold, we are all looking for ways to hunker down and protect our slices of the pie. In doing so we, like politicians, may be tempted to act with increasing desperation. Don't.

Don't Panic

The problem with panic is that it leads to bad decisions. While everybody else is selling, Warren Buffett, the second-richest man in the world (and soon to be the first), is buying. The reason? He always keeps his head. He understands the economic cycle. He knows that while things have gotten way out of whack, the laws of economics have not been repealed, and there are still real companies creating real value out there. While nobody can see a clear way out of these economic straits, acting out of fear will likely make things worse. That's as true of advertising as it is of investing.

Advertising panics usually take one of three forms. The first is cutting back the budget—sometimes to zero. Smart companies are careful about how and where they cut back, so they don't sacrifice the future on the altar of the present (see "Five Don'ts for Marketing in Tough Times" (BusinessWeek.com, 7/11/08). The second is giving away the store, which is almost always a mistake (see "Low Prices Are Not Always Your Friend" (BusinessWeek.com, 4/14/08). The third? Following the politicians down the poisonous path, trying to build yourself up by taking your competition down.

We're already seeing an increase in competitive advertising. Just this weekend I witnessed Burger King (BK) go after McDonald's (MCD), Prestone take aim at its smaller competitors, and Microsoft (MSFT) fight back against Apple (AAPL). The good news is that so far, these companies have resisted the urge to get nasty.

Humor Helps

Burger King's approach is the most aggressive. The chain mentions its arch-competitor by name and makes the direct claim that their BK Wrappers have 30% more chicken than McDonald's Snack Wraps. Yet the commercial still comes off as somewhat innocuous because it was done with humor and a light touch. They made their point and made viewers smile at the same time.

Prestone, too, uses a lighthearted approach. It claims its product is of higher quality than competitors', but wisely keep those competitors unnamed. And while Microsoft's "I'm a PC" campaign is a direct response to Apple's "Mac vs. PC" ads, the company never mentions Apple or Macintosh by name.

So far, so good. But if things get worse economically, the temptations to take the gloves off may become too difficult to resist. That's not only bad for the brands—nobody likes a bully—it's bad for all of us.

It's Eerie With No Ads

Think about the power of advertising. In the days following September 11, the networks temporarily suspended all commercials, and advertisers only slowly made their way back into the market. Watching television during that time was, in a word, eerie. We may not realize it, but the endless drumbeat of ads that are normally in the background helps assure us that the world of commerce is buzzing along as it should.

A similar phenomenon may happen in the days and weeks to come. Advertising won't stop as it did after 9/11, of course, but its tone could become noticeably more strident. If so, it will send a subtle signal that something isn't right. And will fuel consumers' continuing unease.

If you're considering targeting your competitors or changing your tone, stop and think about it. Consider other ways of accomplishing your goals, including using humor, a terrific way to dispel fear. Be as optimistic as you can. Above all, make sure you're not reacting out of panic.

As an advertiser, you can contribute to the fear or you can help diffuse it. The more consumers perceive you going about your normal course of business, the more normal things will feel to them. And the more quickly we can all get back to normal.

Steve McKee is president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland Advertising, a firm that specializes in helping stalled companies rekindle growth. He is the author of the new book, When Growth Stalls, in bookstores March 2009.

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