How To Get Your Brand Heard in a Recession and Boost Your ROI

Sarah Carter
DDB London


It is 1991. Britain has slid into a deep recession. Interest rates are high. House prices are falling rapidly. People are losing their jobs and reining in their spending. Sounds familiar? You are managing the UK’s second-largest credit card brand. New competitors are entering your market. People are understandably more wary and distrustful of credit. Growth has reached a plateau, but costs are rising sharply. The brand has just made its first loss. What do you do? 

Your inclination is probably to play it safe: maybe match competitor offerings, cut prices or increase promotional offers. You’ll almost certainly be tempted to scale back advertising investment and look for a more sober tone of voice in your remaining advertising to match the mood of the hard-pressed public. You probably wouldn’t increase your brand’s price, introducing a new charge of £8 when previously it was free. Nor would you rush to increase costs by introducing new product benefits and then more than double the ad spend.

Finally, it’s unlikely, amid the economic gloom, that you would introduce a hilarious new creative idea with the brand spokesman a bungling, arrogant spy played by an up-and-coming comedian. A spokesman who, moreover, dismisses and mocks the value and usefulness of your brand. But all this is what Barclaycard management did at the height of the last recession - and it paid off handsomely.

In a step-change in performance, Barclaycard’s fortunes were reversed and growth and profit were restored. In fact, after just three years, it toppled the mighty Access (the number-one credit card brand at that time) to become, and remain, brand leader. Before the decade was out, the Access brand was no more.

It may be more than 15 years ago, but many of us remember the Rowan Atkinson Barclaycard ads - the burning carpet from the Egyptian souk, the broken teapot wedding present, the reluctant attempt to suck out the venom from a snake bite on a remote tropical island. But some of us have probably forgotten that this campaign began in, and ran through, the worst recessionary years of the 1990s.

I was lucky enough to work as the planner on this campaign for six years, from its inception in 1991 at what was then BMP DDB. It’s a remarkable success story. But more interestingly, it’s one of the best examples I know of how recessions can sort the marketing men from the boys - offering opportunities to those who are smart and brave enough to recognise and exploit them.

As Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton said: “I was asked what I thought about the recession. I thought about it and decided not to take part.”

So how did Barclaycard decide ‘not to take part’? And more importantly, what lessons and opportunities can we draw in our current fearful times for marketing and advertising decision-makers, many of whom are experiencing their first economic slowdown? First, the story of Barclaycard’s turnaround (1).

Barclaycard in the early 1990s By 1990, important changes were taking place in the credit card market, which threatened the position of the two dominant brands - Access and Barclaycard. Both brands had enjoyed strong growth in cardholders and turnover during the past decade, driven by increased retailer acceptance, consumer familiarity and heavyweight, populist advertising campaigns (Barclaycard had for years used Alan Whicker, while Access had the cartoon ‘flexible friend’). But by 1990, the wheels were starting to fall off.

Credit card penetration increases had levelled off and the introduction of debit cards and financial deregulation in the late 1980s had dramatically increased the number of competitor cards. On top of this, recession was starting to bite. People were nervous about taking on debt and were reducing their spending. Meanwhile, the cost of funds to credit card issuers such as Barclaycard was increasing, so margins were squeezed.

Barclaycard was losing share of market turnover and share of new card holders. The result was that profits halved in 1989 and Barclaycard made a loss in 1990. Its management decided they needed to take a radical look at their product, positioning and communication. First, they re-engineered the product. An annual fee of £8 was introduced (this may seem like no big deal but there was considerable consumer resistance because credit cards had always been given away free until then).

Importantly, though, to go some way towards offsetting this charge, new cardholder benefits were introduced: Purchase Cover (100 day insurance on any item bought with a Barclaycard) and International Rescue (assistance and advice when travelling abroad). These benefits had previously only been available from exclusive, high-fee charge cards, such as American Express. In fact, we summed up our new proposed positioning for Barclaycard as ‘Am-Ex for the masses’. This product upgrade strategy was not matched by competitors, who also moved to add annual fees of their own, but didn’t introduce product upgrades.

The product relaunch was initially handled without any advertising support. In May 1990, Barclaycard wrote to all its customers with a brochure explaining the new package, supported by telephone contact to answer any queries. At the same time, BMP DDB was appointed to work on a new advertising campaign for the upgraded Barclaycard.

Since 1981, Barclaycard had run a famous campaign featuring Alan Whicker and his exotic globetrotting - all aided by the international acceptability of his Barclaycard. But this campaign was under review at the time of the relaunch - Whicker’s appeal to younger prospective cardholders was declining and the increased competitive market, together with Barclaycard’s new, enhanced product, meant international acceptability alone was no longer an adequate competitive positioning.

The objectives of the new campaign we needed to develop were to halt and reverse the declining share of turnover and to reverse the decline in Barclaycard uptake - particularly among younger cardholders. In short, we needed to encourage more people to get, keep and use their Barclaycard more often.


Standing out


We knew from research that people tended to see all credit cards as being much of a muchness. Barclaycard’s new product benefits were obviously potentially ways to change this, but research showed that although awareness levels for the product changes were pretty good (a result of the brochures sent out and good levels of editorial coverage), the changes were not particularly valued or seen to be different. Typical comments were “where’s the catch?” and “I expect they all do that, don’t they?”.

So the role for our new advertising was to make these product benefits real, believable, valued and associated with Barclaycard. It was no mean task to come up with something to replace Alan Whicker. This was one of the great long-running campaigns of the 1980s and it took some time (2). But we eventually struck gold with Rowan Atkinson as bungling secret agent Richard Latham, accompanied by his able assistant, Bough. 

Although equipped by Q with a Barclaycard, Latham always dismisses its usefulness and so is repeatedly left without support or protection when things inevitably go wrong. Three films were made in the first year, featuring different benefits. By the end of 1995, 14 films had been made featuring eight different product stories.


Splash the cash


The media budget for 1991 was set at more than double that of the previous year. This was necessary to rapidly establish the new creative idea (and displace the entrenched awareness of Alan Whicker), to support three bursts at key periods of the year for credit card usage, and to support the three new 60-second films. The first set up the new campaign, as Latham is given his Barclaycard, and the other two featured each of the new product benefits.

The budget increase was, in truth, primarily a response to the needs of the new marketing strategy, rather than being made directly with an eye on the recessionary environment or on the budget of brand leader Access.

But the net result of all these factors was that ad spend for Barclaycard more than doubled, while Access halved its spend as it responded in a different, more typical way to turbulent market conditions. These changes in relative ad spend continued for the next five years, providing a serendipitous opportunity to learn about the effects of significant change in relative competitor spend in the midst of a recession (Figure 1).