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The Worst of Times Demand the Best of Brands
by Julie Cucchi

A friend and I were recently talking about (what else?) the current state of the economy. I noted that the impact of the crisis had started to affect my purchase behavior even before it hit my bank account. We both agreed we were being uncharacteristically conscious of how we were spending money, even on small, daily purchases. Our purchase behavior also seemed to reveal a more subtle shift. The difference, we found, was not how much we were buying but what we were choosing to buy. We’ve become more discriminating shoppers, less willing to forgive the common disappointments of brands that don’t deliver. We find ourselves choosing those brands that are sure to please -- they work every time, always taste great, give us a guaranteed, small shot of joy. Even if they cost more. We asked our friends and discovered that our behavior was not uncommon. And so, as the economy heads southward, our message to brand stewards everywhere is one that might sound counterintuitive: now is the best opportunity for great brands to succeed.

How do we define a great brand? Most obviously, a great brand is not one whose value is based on superficial cache. These are often the most expensive brands in the category and their cost is actually the basis of their status. Clearly, these brands fare well when consumers feel flush, not bust. Less obviously, a great brand is also not one whose value is found in its low price. A consumer counting every penny is no more satisfied with a mediocre brand than when their pockets are deep.

What makes a great brand during hard economic times is no different from what makes it great during good times—whether that brand is a packaged good, a service or an institution. First, it has true insight into a clearly defined target. Next, both its product and brand attributes are directly informed by these insights. A great brand has a clear and persuasive point of view articulated in all its expressions from the way the product performs, to its marketing efforts, to the behavior of its corporate parent, to the look and feel and language of its web site, marketing materials and packaging. In every respect a great brand is true to its own ‘brand essence’ and so displays a trustworthy consistency— it looks the way it talks the way it acts. A purchase made by the consumer with greater deliberation and greater consciousness than usual will be rewarded by the perfect thoughtfulness of a great brand. 

As marketers cut budgets and pare back brand efforts, it’s worth noting that now could be the best time to tend and grow that most elusive and difficult crop of consumers: brand loyalists. When consumers are feeling prosperous they are more likely to jump from brand to brand. The consequences of disappointment are less great when no one is counting pennies. Furthermore, the fantasy of ‘something better’ is fueled by ready cash. The need to commit, in a good economy, simply isn't pressing.  Put those same consumers in a situation where every purchase has greater financial meaning, where every small purchase is deliberated, and brand promiscuity is reduced. Each good experience delivers more satisfaction, more joy, a greater potential for a long term relationship.  This is the kind of consumer every brand dreams of –the consumer who invests not just their money, but their heart. 

We all know what a mediocre brand looks (and acts) like. Its focus is fuzzy, its message confused, its packaging cluttered and its marketing efforts undisciplined. In a good economy these brands can sometimes get by, as consumers buy with abandon. The consequences of disappointment are lower and so are their expectations and demands. But hard times are no time for soft brands.

Brands which do the difficult work to discover and define their  ‘essence’, their most likely target and their positioning given the competition, will not only be strong enough to weather the current economic storm but might emerge stronger than ever. The brands that make the tough choices from messaging to design, from headlines to packaging, focusing like a laser on who they are and how they fit into their consumers’ lives will be rewarded. The others will suffer.

Branding, in times like these, is not a luxury. It is a survival tool.


The Author


Julie Cucchi is co-founder of 98pt6, a brand expression agency. Visit .

Many more articles in Branding in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2008 by Julie Cucchi. All rights reserved.

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