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“The squeeze is on”: How Northern brands are adapting their marketing as a recession looms


As the cost of living crisis deepens and an impending recession looms, there will undoubtedly be some serious conversations in board meetings about how and where those all important budgets will be spent.

“It’s going to be tough – tougher than before” – but among the Northern brands we contacted, there’s also an acknowledgement that now is not the time to be quiet.

Despite this, the latest IPA Bellwether Report predicts there could be four years of cuts to UK advertising budgets, with 13.4% of British companies reporting cuts to their budgets already.

The marketing world is bracing itself; after all, marketing budgets are often the first to be scrutinised when economic turmoil hits.

But will this have an impact on the way Northern companies manage marketing budgets and can brands afford to slash these budgets in an increasingly competitive world?

We got in touch with a number of brands, either established or with offices in the North, to find out whether tightening the marketing purse strings is on the horizon as costs continue to spiral.

“Our marketing budget is not an optional expense”

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Based in Rossendale in Lancashire, Joy Howieson is the founder and CEO of lip-plumping brand Project Lip. 

She decided to follow her dream after suffering from a pulmonary embolism as a 23-year-old.

Working as a make-up artist in Manchester, she decided to launch her own company after more and more clients started asking for lip-plumping products.

The brand now boasts celebrity fans including Lottie Tomlinson and Rita Ora and is sold globally online via PrettyLittleThing, Beauty Bay and FashionNova Beauty US.

For Howieson, she doesn’t plan to cut her marketing budget despite concerns over the recession.

“We won’t be cutting our marketing budget, this will only make it harder to not only retain customers but attract new ones! We are a lip-plumping brand and we were able to survive the pandemic, a time when not only were people more cautious with spending but they were also wearing masks. 

“Our marketing budget is not an optional expense, it’s how we bring in key revenue to the business. Instead, we will be looking at other aspects of the business to distinguish what’s 100% necessary and where we can cut back, whilst managing our marketing budget more carefully to continue to maintain, and build, a strong brand presence.”

“Now more than ever you have to give people a reason to shop with you”

Richard Cristofoli is Chief Customer Officer at Bradford-based Freemans. The digital retailer is continuing to ramp up its marketing activity, revealing a new campaign for AW22 through a series of digital activity and advertising this week.

He explained: “We have no plans for a reduction in our marketing budget and will continue to focus on the highest-returning channels as we’re confident that our Freemans proposition is more relevant today than ever.

“First and foremost the job of any retailer has to be to help. It goes without saying that we are seeing unprecedented pressures on customer spend and the way we operate as a business. For us, this requires us to constantly review our proposition and ensure we are delivering true 360-degree value for money across our pricing, promotional programme, customer offer and services.

“More now than ever before it’s time to celebrate value and amazing products at amazing prices that reflect the needs and the wants of our customer. This isn’t about excessive discounting, it is about building value from the offset. We continue to achieve this through consolidation and coordination of ordering, planning buys more efficiently and leaning into the buying power of our parent company Otto. With the pressures of the cost of living we are looking at this again with a renewed vigour.”

From unique ranges and exclusive offers to partnerships with leading stylists or designers, Freemans plans to continue showcasing what separates itself from other retailers in the industry.

“Now more than ever you have to give people a reason to shop with you,” he said. 

“On top of that, now is not the time to be quiet – retailers need to communicate their offering in a strong and compelling way that gently interrupts the cadence of customers’ lives.

“For us this is about using every customer channel possible, be it Freemans owned or paid – our Loose Women sponsorship, AW22 TV and digital campaigns launched on 30 August.

“To summarise, it must be about everyday value, creating a reason to shop, ranges that reflect the needs and wants of customers all underpinned by savvy buying, outstanding service and shouting about it with pride!”

“Marketing budgets are squeezed”

Essity, which is behind well-known health and hygiene brands including Cushelle, TENA, Bodyform and Plenty, has a UK consumer goods head office based at Manchester Airport. The company has recently made a number of senior team hires and promotions across its marketing and communications departments. 

Ruth Gresty, who was most recently managing director at marketing agency Boxed Red, will be working across key consumer goods brands including TENA and Cushelle in her new role as Marketing Director.

With inflation already rising at its highest rate in decades, the expected recession is a key factor for Essity when it comes to planning marketing initiatives for the remainder of 2022 into 2023.

On what Essity plans to do, she explained: “We are working hard to strike the right balance between investing in our brands whilst also ensuring we spend efficiently and effectively amidst spiralling raw material and manufacturing costs. As such, it’s never been more important to ensure that the way we invest in our brands provides value to consumers and creates long-term benefits in terms of costs and sustainability.”

The group’s key brands will “continue to be present on TV and in digital with new campaigns having already launched or set to be launched before the end of the year”.

“We are continuing to invest in the long-term future of our brands with multi-million pound investments in production facilities at our Manchester and Prudhoe (Northumberland) paper mills. In Manchester, we have recently opened a new production line that has enabled Essity to become the first manufacturer in the UK to bring a coreless toilet tissue product to the market under our Cushelle brand. 

“Marketing budgets are squeezed, and rightly so given the economic conditions, but we are committed to investing in our brands and we have every intention of continuing to drive the hygiene and health categories through these challenging times.”

“We will have to find money for marketing… but it is going to be scrutinised intensely”

Robert Weatherhead, owner of Bolton-based BonCru Wines who has previously held senior positions at leading agencies including MediaCom and Fast Web Media, explained that the wine industry is currently facing a “perfect storm” of issues.

These include Brexit import costs which lead to delays, poor harvests in wine-producing countries affecting supply, the impact of the Ukraine-Russia war affecting availability of bottles, fuel costs and the on-going uncertainty around the cost of living.

“As a retailer in this industry our margins are already tight. So finding money to market our products is already an on-going battle and it is only going to get tougher. We pride ourselves on our affordability, and our market is intensely price driven, so we are loathed to increase pricing as it could further impact sales.

“We will have to find money for marketing, we have no choice, but it is going to be scrutinised intensely when we do. Thankfully most of our marketing and business is digital already, so more cost-effective than larger brands.

“Strategy-wise our focus is going to be on retaining the customers we already have. They are much easier to retain and they already know our service levels. New customers might be less certain buying from a new website and more price-driven, our existing customers will accept small price increases as they know we offer a great service.”

“The squeeze is on”

Simon Brown is CEO and founder at Joe Browns. Headquartered in Leeds, Joe Browns is a home and fashion retailer with ambitious growth plans to hit £100m in annual sales by 2026.

As part of these plans, the retailer has boosted its marketing and ecommerce teams alongside the recent hire of Peter Alecock, the former Chief Operating Officer at JD Sports.

From the rising costs of clothing and freight to paper costs and utility bills, the retailer, like many in the industry,- is feeling the brunt of the cost of living squeeze.

“It’s going to be tough – tougher than before because costs are going up while consumer spending power is going down,” he said. “The squeeze is on.”

But what will top the agenda with the impending recession when it comes to marketing? Focusing on controlling costs and continuing to “study marketing costs”.

“We’re not looking to cut our marketing, if anything we’ll increase it, but every pound must work harder. Study the margin and consolidate the freight. Everyone knows what to look for but now we must find it.”

Focusing on the opportunities available, cementing the product and brand are all important too. 

“We’ve been doing this even more than ever for the last 18 months and it’s really paid off. If your proposition isn’t bang on, you’ll suffer.

 “Now isn’t the time to be quiet. You’ve got to be brave.”

“We will be thinking outside the box with our marketing”

The founder and Creative Director at Charlotte Mills, a Manchester-based bridal footwear brand, believes marketing is more important than ever but will be looking at new ways to stretch her budget.

She said: “We’ve definitely noticed a slump this summer, although this traditionally is always a quiet season for us anyway. However, with the impending recession – is this the new normal or are we returning to our pre-Covid seasonality? If only we had the answers!

“For us, this means marketing is more important than ever. As a predominantly online brand, we need to reach more people, maintain brand awareness and ultimately use digital channels to convert in order for us to not only survive but thrive – which means we have to keep our marketing budget intact. 

“We won’t be cutting our budget but we will be thinking outside the box with our marketing and making the budget go as far as possible. We’re looking at new advertising streams, well-performing channels, the types of content we’re creating, where we’re placing that content and where we can make the most ROI. We’re pivoting, not pausing.”

“Cutting marketing spend during recessions actually hinders businesses”

Ben Foster, MD at The SEO Works
Ben Foster, MD at The SEO Works

Ben Foster, Managing Director at Sheffield-based The SEO Works, has over 20 years of experience in the marketing world with the agency working with a range of clients from Jessops to Decathlon.

He warns against cutting marketing spend in a recession if a business is to continue its growth journey.

“When a recession is looming and times are tough, marketing budgets are often first on the list for the chop. As a business leader, I’m aware of the many circumstances which limit your choices – but my advice would be to put down that particular axe.

“Keeping sustained revenue during an economic squeeze is a large enough challenge – without the firepower that a robust marketing approach can provide, this will become even more difficult.

“Though performance expectations should be adjusted, the return your marketing provides could be a make or break difference to your business. If cuts do need to be made, make sure they are in the channels with no measurable return on investment.”

“Furthermore, research from the IPA suggests that cutting marketing spend during recessions actually hinders businesses more than it helps them – the time taken to recover when the economy picks up is a lot longer.”

His final piece of advice? Don’t hide your brand away to save money.

“Messaging and approaches should be adjusted to adapt to changing behaviours and sentiment, but hiding your brand away to save money could limit your own recovery.”

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