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27.10.22

Promotional marketing in a recession – lessons from the 50s, 80s and now

Sharon Maughan in a Nescafé Gold Blend Couple ad

Inflation. The weekly shop. Petrol prices. Household energy bills. Trouble a’t mill, as they say. Or, more accurately, uncertainty in the halls of the Palace of Westminster. 

As pundits predict that shocked households will rein in their spending, retailers and manufacturers are feeleing wrong-footed. We’re not far enough on from the pandemic lockdowns that there’s some give, a little wiggle room, ample cushioning. A healthy Christmas season is badly needed.

It’s impossible to be certain what’s coming next but it feels timely to take a moment and take stock of a few things we do know.

  1. This isn’t our first recession; it won’t be our last.
  2. The last time inflation was this bad, brands survived and even thrived.
  3. Consumers want good prices AND good stories.

Occasionally revisiting the past can be enlightening. Can we learn something, borrow a promotional marketing idea, or reinvent one with potential? But before we unpack what has gone before, let’s look at what we certainly do know: what customers want.

“The consumer isn’t a moron; she’s your wife!”

David Ogilvy

1955: Consumers don’t want a price promotion, they want a good price

David Ogilvy, one of the marketing greats, famously said in 1955: “The consumer isn’t a moron; she’s your wife”. And when the household purse is under stress, the consumers making thoughtful decisions shift their agendas. 

In a time of more liberal spending, they might well choose the brand with the free gift or the loyalty points programme. But when things get serious, what consumers want is:

  • Good value.
  • The lowest possible cost and a decent product. 
  • Ideally, to be able to rely on lowest-cost-decent-product time and again. 
  • For their brand to be up front, honest and fair.

Coincidentally, supermarket price promotions are being squeezed because of increased costs in the supply chain: no wiggle room. The Grocer reported: “According to Kantar, 26.6% of products sold were on promotion between the start of the year and August 2022, a figure that has been in decline since 2019, when deals accounted for 32% of sales in the same period.”

However, it’s possible to create a promotional marketing campaign with rewards that really, really matter.

Valuable rewards in tough times – strong story, genuine value

People love brands because they empathise with the brand’s values, the persona, the story. Even in a recession that’s being flanked by a harsh cost of living crisis, consumers still value that feeling of belonging, of being understood. They appreciate the laughs and the optimism and the fleeting shared heartbreak – whatever the story is that you’re telling.

Big brands have generally got a firm handle on this approach already. But smaller brands can also have epiphany moments too, where their product and its marketing land well.

And, recession be damned, it becomes a hit.

Even in a recession that’s being flanked by a harsh cost of living crisis, consumers still value that feeling of belonging, of being understood. They appreciate the laughs and the optimism and the fleeting shared heartbreak.

2019: Wall’s promotional marketing during austerity

A promotional marketing campaign with a strong story and genuine value is a winner. By 2019, the UK had experienced almost a decade of austerity that arguably dismantled the support structures of many communities (think libraries, youth clubs, sports for kids).

Into this wasteland, Wall’s ran a promotional marketing campaign that linked the purchase of their products to donations to local causes, as reported by Forecourt Trader. Community groups registered on a dedicated Wall’s microsite, hoping to be one of five community clubs that received the most points and were awarded £1,000.

Meanwhile, customers collected points by purchasing Wall’s Pastry products. Once they’d validated their receipt with an app like SwiftReceipt, they could allocate points to their chosen cause. The top 20 clubs battled it out on a live leaderboard, creating ongoing engagement.

Wall’s was offering added value – not into the purse of an individual, but back into the community. Customers felt the impact, emotionally and practically. This was a story they were involved in, which created real value in their lives.

Customers felt the impact, emotionally and practically. This was a story they were involved in, which created real value in their lives.

1980s: top brand stories

During another recession within living memory, 12.5% of the workforce was unemployed: in January 1982, joblessness was the highest it had been for around 50 years. The economy struggled to recover and, though it did, high unemployment prevailed until late into the decade. Not unlike the austerity measures of recent times, communities were squeezed of funding. 

On the TV, on the radio and in print, some brands were going hard so they didn’t have to go home. That we were in a recession didn’t stop the launch of new products, or the continued rise of certain household names. 

Wall’s success was very straightforward: purchase to donate, be part of the story. They’re not a lifestyle brand but they created something strong and genuine through effective promotional marketing. Many contemporary campaigns for very different products had ‘the feels’, too.

1. Nescafé & Nescafé Gold Blend stories

If you’re young, free and a bit of a hippy, quality instant coffee is essential emergency kit that you keep in your chic little car, according to Nescafé’s TV advert Sunrise (1988). It’s comforting, helps you get over a break-up, gives you optimism for the future. It’s evocative of freedom and adventure.

However, more mature people with education, class and taste drink Gold Blend – and they’re clearly open to adventures of the heart, if not of the road. In this legendary TV ad, Sharon flirts with her new neighbour while borrowing his Gold Blend in the first installment of the Gold Blend Couple. The story captured the nation’s imagination and became a series of ‘soap opera’ adverts following Sharon and Tony’s romance.

2. Slumberdown and Habitat duvets

Britain had recently discovered continental quilts – or duvets, as we know them now. By the 1980s, they were gaining in popularity, partly down to campaigns by companies like Slumberdown. In Jollity Farm (1983), puppetry and a song got the idea across. 

However, the BBC notes that duvet advertising also reflected a less traditional married couple snuggled in bed, with some Habitat adverts depicting naked couples under duvets – and even a ‘husband’ effortlessly making while his ‘wife’ paints her nails, watching through the mirror. Strong stuff!

Stories for our times

The examples above are for similar products, yet poles-apart demographics. They reflect traditional values as well as novel ideas like equality. The brands told bold stories and knew who they were. And, in the case of the promotional marketing campaign for Wall’s, showed what really matters when times are hard.

We’ve got a long, long history of helping to deliver promotional marketing campaigns that leave a legacy too. Get in touch to talk about your project, and we’ll be happy to take you through some stories we’ve helped make a success.


Image: screen capture from the first Gold Blend advert (developed by McCann Erickson for Nescafé) starring Sharon Maughan and Anthony Head.

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