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What is the responsibility of marketers in a time of recession?

May 27, 2010
Image of graffiti at St Mary's Church Ashwell

Mediaeval graffiti at Ashwell in Hertfordshire - in times of despair, we do well to display humanity

The fear of the unknown is nothing new. A year after a plague visited the rural village of Ashwell in Hertfordshire in 1360, the priest (or some other learned person) incised a haunting phrase on the walls of the church there.

It reads : “There was a plague 1000,three times 100, five times 10, a pitiable, fierce violent (plague departed?); a wretched populace survives to witness and in the end a mighty wind, Maurus, thunders in this year in the world, 1361”

Another plague had been there before in 1349. It was a sorry place, visited by pestilence and scrabbling in the soil for survival…

Today another wind thunders through our world, the great pestilence of recession, seeking out as it goes those who have not wit or wherewithal to withstand it. And in its wake it leaves the carnage of shattered dreams and broken lives. So how, in such a place, can marketers continue to promote products and services by messaging the beautiful life?

The most successful marketing, as we have said before on A Brand Day Out, is that which conveys fundamental truths. The indolence of words and the monstrosity of exaggeration have no part to play in marketing – either in a recession or without.

Over the years I have berated staff who used words like “unique”, “comprehensive” and “totally up-to-date” in their copywriting. I regard the use of such words as copywriter’s shorthand. They can’t be bothered to convey just what a product does. Instead, they expect their readers to “take it from me that you’ll want this product”.

Currently, money is short. Yet banks – including those rescued by international government interventions – now start to promote themselves again as “helpful”. Life is wonderful – go on, take out a car loan, you know you want that car. Just think what your friends will think when you drive around showing off…

Credit card mailings still come through the door for people who have been “specially selected” to “enjoy the benefits” of their titanium/manganese credit card (benefits which of course include paying for products you would not normally buy at a price grossly distorted by interest). Gambling companies, surely the most grotesque progeny of human weakness, talk up the “fun” of bingo and poker.

But companies have a real responsibility to respect the difficulties of others. Instead, they still desperately try to part people from their cash (or the banks’ cash, residing in their credit card “account”). Yet the “free market” – the catchphrase used by politicians and advisers to deny responsibility for the frailty of the human condition – tells us that companies must market their products in order to survive.

Quite right too. But market responsibly. A loan is a loan, not a route to some illusory happiness. A credit card is a relationship with a bank to spread payments for goods and services at a higher price than you would pay for a product if paying by cash.  And gambling of course is a contemptible pastime – a cancer on hope.

Of course, there is no doubt that money makes the world go round, but we have seen in this recession in particular, that credit has made the world go round. Until it stopped. Marketers have become skilled at exploiting human frailties – greed, lust etc. Now in today’s world they must take responsibility. Describe goods for what they are, what they do and move away from the false portrayal of the mirage of endless happiness.

Of course, this is not a time for puritanical witch hunts either. The portrayal of the future as one of hopelessness is not the way forward. But, as ever in life, honesty, integrity, humanity and decency create a world which is better for us all. Pricing models, payment schemes and ownership policies need more than ever to convey the real benefits (and the costs of those benefits) to the customer so that correct assessments of purchase can be made. This puts the onus on marketers – and the businesses which employ them – to focus on customers more than ever before. Because, in the end, customers, their relationship with you, and their ability to pay, will keep your business afloat.

Today, St Mary’s Church at Ashwell is a beautiful place. That priest, that plague, have long gone. But the darkest of the night comes before the dawn and, when the dawn breaks, together we can walk into a new day. Help your customers enjoy it with you.

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