Marketing in a Recession: New! Improved!

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Marketers are doing some serious soul searching these days. It’s all over the pages of the January-February issue of the marketing industry magazine The Hub, as the people who sell stuff reflect on just what it is they’re supposed to be selling now. There’s a vague recognition that the correct answer is not “the same old crap,” but bold and definitive answers are scarce as the writers struggle mightily to break free of marketing speak and deeply embedded consumerist values. And every one of the essayists closes with a conclusion that only a marketer could concoct:

Spencer Hapoienu writes that marketing is in need of an overhaul in “The Obama Challenge.” Despite the crass subheadline–“One should never waste a crisis … and by all accounts this one will be a doozy”–Hapoienu asks a high-minded question: “Is there a way that every brand can participate in improving the lives of its customers beyond simply selling a product?” He suggests that being greener is a key goal, but undermines his point by positing that Procter & Gamble set the bar for value-added marketing with its repositioning of Pampers a few years ago. (Google “disposable diapers” and “landfill” to find out how much value they add to the planet.) Conclusion: “This time is a new opportunity for marketing to lead, leaving a mark every brand can be proud of, while creating a fan base of enthusiastic and grateful customers.”

Tim Manners also starts from a reflective position in “Crisis of Relevance“: “As marketers, we owe it to ourselves, our shoppers and, yes, our country, to take a good hard look at how we may have contributed to the sad state of our economy today.” He suggests marketers need to figure out how to “help solve people’s problems and … live happier lives.” But he too rests his case on specious examples: “Dunkin’ Donuts makes a difference by serving up a workaday pink-and-orange cup of joe. … Kleenex innovated its way to relevance by adding germ-killers to its tissues. … Levi’s innovated its way to relevance by coming up with wardrobe solutions for men.” If overhyped coffee, medicated tissues, and Dockers are the answer to our crisis, we’re in more serious trouble than I thought. Conclusion: “This is a painful moment for marketers, no doubt about it. But it is also a moment when those of us who live up to all our chatter about being relevant will flourish.”

Dori Molitor puts an upbeat motivational-speech spin on things in “Everyone Matters,” which posits that “we all want to know that our lives have a purpose that’s larger than ourselves.” She steps up and criticizes many companies for failing to change their ways, but again her vision of a better world fails to inspire. She notes two recent cases in which retail salespeople helped her and her daughter solve pressing fashion dilemmas: One employee delivered a missing belt to their house after work, and another went “on break” to help her find what she wanted at a competitor’s store. Apparently, the future of retail is low-paid employees doing customers favors while off the clock. Conclusion: “Every ounce of my being believes that the greatest opportunity for brands is to help us live better, more purposeful lives. Treating us like we matter is a huge step in that direction and sometimes it’s as simple as looking us in the eye and being yourself. Humanity is all it takes.”

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