When the going gets tough, the tough build trust

It’s a common experience among many communications professionals: after helping an organization build its brand reputation during good times, we often see our efforts unravel the moment an economic downturn hits and senior management decides to cut spending on brand communications. It’s understandable. But it’s also a mistake, since difficult times are exactly when an organization should remain visible and emphasize its brand.

While this is something that PR executives know intuitively, it’s time for us to better make the case in front of C-Suite decision-makers. Essentially, when the going gets tough, the tough make their brands stronger through targeted, cost-effective tactics that build trust across all stakeholders.

Defending PR in times of difficult choices

It’s understandable that bottom line-minded organizations will scrutinize their communications budgets when they spot a cyclical shift in their business. Typically, their natural reaction to sliding sales is to trim expenses that can be cut quickly or that don’t have an obvious impact on company revenues.

That’s often the case with brand communications, in which many expenses can be pared back without hurting production. Adding to the challenge, since ROI on these expenses is not easily quantifiable, it can be difficult for marketing executives to defend their budgets in the boardroom even though it’s well-known that marketing ultimately drives sales.

There are many compelling arguments to preserve brand spending. Among them, when a company is surrounded by bad news – from falling profits to rumors of downsizing – it’s critical to counter balance and diffuse those negative impressions with clear, strong messaging that will reinforce or re-instill confidence in the brand. During downturns, many companies ‘go silent,’ forcing their stakeholders to interpret their actions in the information void. As we all know, hiding from a problem seldom makes it go away.

In fact, established brands that sit quietly on the sidelines to weather a storm may be left behind. That’s because, although consumer and business spending may dip during a downturn, people continue to make purchasing decisions and still seek information to help them optimize their spending. This is when new competitors surface, including low-cost alternative brands that can steal market share by appealing to evolving customer needs.

Hyundai’s bold promise pays off

While it may be necessary to maintain current brand communication investments just to hold your position (which may feel like paddling a canoe upstream), it’s also possible to strengthen your brand during a recession with the right strategies – especially if your competitors are cutting back.

For example, think of the U.S. auto industry during the last recession. In the midst of plummeting car sales, most domestic and foreign auto manufacturers slammed the brakes on their brand communications. In contrast, Korean automaker Hyundai boldly introduced a buyers’ assurance program[1], and aggressively publicized the promise that any Hyundai purchaser who lost their job could return the car, no strings attached. Not only did Hyundai sales spiked 27 percent, whereas the industry suffered a 22 percent sales drop, but Ad Age named the company its ‘2009 Marketer of the Year.’

It’s all about building trust

If the Hyundai example tells us anything, it’s that, in a downturn, the most important asset a company can possess is trust. In good times, companies spend heavily to earn marketplace trust in their brand, and an economic downturn is a real opportunity – or test – to prove they mean what they say.

Like the expression, “When you face a crisis, you know who your true friends are,” the same applies for brand communications. When economic conditions are difficult, consumers and business leaders face uncertainty. They will look to see how their favorite brands respond when times are tough. Do they remain visible and dependable? Do they step forward with helpful support or action? Or, do they retreat into their shells like a turtle? The latter action risks damaging a company’s brand and it may never regain its former level of trust among its customers, investors, suppliers, or even its own employees.

Profile executives as trust-building, brand ambassadors

While it may be tough to convince a nervous executive committee to increase brand spending in uneven markets, smart PR practitioners can offer a wide range of strategies to help a company maintain its brand presence and navigate difficult conditions.

As a first step, thorough, up-front research can help PR advisors recommend the most impactful tactics that precisely target a company’s highest priority audiences. Social media techniques, in particular, are cost-effective, fast and efficient at driving home the right message and communicating directly with consumers. Rather than using hard-sell tactics that turn off audiences who are trying to reduce their consumption, social media is able to make a connection to brands in a way that educates, entertains and enhances the lives of today’s smart-phone wielding consumers.

Another trust-building tactic: many companies focus on building the profile of their top executives, by developing them into sought-after media spokespersons, thought-leading mainstream media, blog and op-ed columnists, social media commentators and popular public speakers. This approach is less expensive than other, advertising-dependent brand strategies. It also borrows largely on existing internal resources – namely the brainpower and perspectives of a company’s senior leaders or subject matter experts. Most importantly, these types of executive profiling strategies contribute directly to critical ‘trust-building’ activity.

Executive spokespeople can also authentically connect with audiences and share views or advice that humanize a brand. For example, imagine a corporate CEO who pens a persuasive article about the ways her company is responding to shifting customer concerns, offering real-life tips to help customers make ends meet, or provides predications on top-of-mind issues. In my experience, both B2B and B2C audiences really respond to these insights from, and interactions with, an organization’s top leaders, and they are very likely to remember the company, think favorably of it, or increase their brand loyalty.

Now, is it easy to convince top executives to step into the spotlight when they are buried in countless pressing business concerns under dark economic clouds? Not always. But skilled PR professionals can make the case and demonstrate how it will pay off for the organization, both sooner and later. Most forward-thinking business leaders will appreciate the intangible ROI from building their public profiles. They will understand that tough times call for tougher efforts to fortify their brand, and creative, cost-conscious communication strategies will help them emerge from the downturn stronger than before.

[1] Adage.com, November 9, 2009, “Marketer of the Year: Hyundai.”