High inflation, a cost of living squeeze and a recession on the horizon would leave many in a state of panic. But fear not, because marketers are now all too familiar with working in uncertain and volatile times. The key is to stay calm, stay focused on your customer, and practice slow breathing, says Victoria Herrick, Strategy Partner at Strat House.

Uh oh… it seems like we may be heading for troubled financial times; UK consumer confidence is falling, inflation is rising, wages are stagnant and the cost-of-living crisis is starting to pinch – the likelihood of a slowdown is feeling very real.

And with that comes an unsettling feeling that things are about to get distinctly hairy (again). At Strat House we’re cheery upbeat folk, so I’d like to offer a cheery perspective on the months ahead, summed up in three simple points:

  1. Don’t assume that this recession will impact you like the last one (or be as bad)
  2. Don’t overlook what you already instinctively know about dealing with tough times
  3. Breathe

Three recessions and not one of them the same

I’m getting on now, but in my entire working life there have only been three recessions (in the 1990s, the Great Recession of 2008/9 and the COVID-19 recession). The only thing that has been the same in each of these three recessions was the metric – when clever economists point out that we’ve experienced two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. But each recession has had its own unique set of triggers and impacts. Every recession has its winners and losers.

We all know numbers in business are just a function of activity. So, it’s not the headline KPI that matters – it’s the activity that sits behind it, right down at the micro level. That’s why looking to the past as if it can be a predictor of the future is a bad plan. Acting on the here and now is what counts.

And the good news is that you already know how to handle a recession – even if it’s completely different for you from the last one…

You already know everything you need to know to handle this

As I was saying – in three decades of work I’ve witnessed three recessions. But there certainly haven’t only been three hairy moments in the three decades of my working life. I have witnessed countless rounds of restructuring, cost cutting, re-organisation and strategizing, all regardless of where the needle on any given economic index has happened to be. 

Clearly, recessions are bad, but things can get tough in good times too. So, I’d argue that businesses are already equipped with the tools, skills and common sense to deal with tough times. The most important thing is not to panic, and not to lose sight of the fundamental processes that make your business tick. This includes maintaining solid fiscal governance, (keep an especially close eye on cash) and watch your KPIs and any lead indicators that may reveal signs of a slow-down. It means checking your data (both online and offline sales and online content) for changes in behaviour. And keep team communications flowing – share what you know but be wary of getting drawn into distracting speculation. Check in with suppliers. Check in with your retail partners. Watch what your competitors are doing. Keep core projects moving forward… and keep breathing.

Remember to breathe…

Sometimes, when people exercise, they concentrate so hard they forget to breathe. Oxygen-starved bodies can’t function effectively, so exercise becomes laboured and inefficient. That’s unhelpful. Also, when we’re under pressure our breathing goes haywire. Shallow, rapid and irregular, panicked breathing triggers our fight or flight instinct. That’s also unhelpful.

I recently learned the technique known as box or square breathing. I have a crazy habit of panicking when I’m a passenger in a car. Everything is outside my control, and somehow even a familiar roundabout can feel like the scariest of death traps. Thanks to square breathing I can now stay calm at all forms of traffic intersection and even when hurtling down a slip road in a manically-driven Uber.

Square breathing works because it’s super easy to remember. Conscious breath control counters the fight or flight reflex, helping to restore a sense of calm, increase focus and enhance performance.

Sounds like a concept that would work for business in a time of crisis.

Square breathing for business

So, here’s my version of square breathing for business.

1. Inhale – breathe in as much information on your customers as you can

Your customer knowledge is your business oxygen. So, start here. Think carefully about how recession could impact them. Do this at a granular level – don’t make sweeping assumptions that the hard times ahead will impact them all equally. Work out what recession looks like through their eyes. Can they buy, will they buy, do they need anything else from you?

2. Pause – before you rush to exhale, hold and think things though

Now carefully formulate a response. This is a time to slow things ever so slightly while you make conscious and unhurried choices about your next moves. Be very careful about rushing to discount price. There’s a risk that you’ll devalue the brand in the longer run. But whatever you do, don't get stuck here or you’ll turn blue.

3. Exhale – and connect with your customers

Steady and controlled, mindfully exhale. Savour the power of connecting with your customers in a way that is deeply relevant to their circumstances. Don’t try to sell if you know they can’t buy. Give them a gentle nudge if you know they can, but might be stuck, and consider that even if they can’t buy you mustn’t disappear off their radar altogether. Consider helpful brand experiences that will keep your product or service top of mind through tough times by extending your relevance beyond your product or service; for example, by offering life hacks, connecting them with relevant information or even just providing some entertaining light relief (providing it’s a good fit for your brand and sensitively executed). You’ve got to keep breathing – maintaining a steady and purposeful rhythm keeping you close to your customers.

4. Pause – take a moment to check in on your impact

Before you take your next breath, pause to assess how things are going. What worked, and what didn’t? How’s your core? Good and strong or weak and wobbly? Was your first breath too shallow? Do you need to breathe a little deeper next time? Refocus and make sure you’ve got your core. Perhaps spend a little less time thinking about your extremities. You may now need to pause marketing activity on non-core lines or defer new product launches until the market picks up so that you can re-focus time and marketing spend on core products or brand building.

Breathe again

Yes, it’s scary and yes it feels like we’re in for a tough time. But fight or flight responses aren’t going to help and nor will shutting down. You have totally got this. Whatever you do – don’t stop the oxygen supply – stay connected to your customers. Carry on doing the things you already do well. Breathe.