by Lisa Zone

April 15, 2020

History proves that pulling back during a pandemic is a bad brand strategy

As the old saying goes, history always repeats itself. While the pandemic we’re now facing brings its own set of challenges, historical data offers some valuable insight into how brands fare on the other side of a crisis. Often, in times of economic uncertainty, marketing is the first budget to get slashed (often disproportionately to other parts of the business). But taking a longer-term marketing view is important now – as it was in the past – to ensure the future viability of your brand.

Here are a few examples that illustrate the importance of maintaining – or even increasing – your brand presence now:

  • Forbes explains that throughout history, brands often benefitted from maintaining – or, in some cases, increasing – their ad budgets during economic downturns. An example: In the 1920s, Post was the category leader in cereal, but cut back its advertising significantly in the wake of the Great Depression. At the same time, competitor Kellogg’s doubled its advertising spend – and even introduced a new product (ever heard of Rice Krispies?!) – which led to a 30% bump in profits, cementing Kellogg’s dominance in the cereal space. If you’re nipping at the heels of your category’s top dog, what can you learn from brands that improved their standing during an economic crisis?
  • Back in 2008, data consulting company Millward Brown found that 60% of the brands that went “dark” during an economic downturn—aka no TV ad spend for 6 months—saw brand use and image decrease anywhere from 25% to 30%. Think of the years (and the dollars!) it took those companies to build up their brands, only to lose significant footing in a span of just six months. While maintaining current spending levels may not be in the cards for your company, we would caution against going completely dark because it will require even more of a ramp up when things return back to normal (particularly if your rivals continue advertising while you have significantly cut back).
  • Perhaps there is no starker image to depict the idea of taking a longer-term view to brand-building than this chart illustrating a study done by Roland Vaile, which shows the performance of 250 companies from the time starting with the Great Depression through the growth period that ensued on the other side. (For a more detailed view into Vaile’s work, check out this recent Marketing Week article.) While today’s circumstances are different, we can learn from the companies that came before to get a clearer picture of the impact a budget cut – or a budget increase – may have longer term. And beyond the Great Depression, a quick Google search will yield lots of branding lessons to be learned, from more recent economic recessions to the impact of 9/11. Find examples that resonate with you and determine how your brand can leverage what you’ve learned to plan and build for your future.


History, indeed, has a way of repeating itself – from fashion trends, to TV reboots, to marketing during a global crisis. And while it may feel like a lonely place making marketing decisions you’ve never had to make before, chances are, somewhere in history, a marketer before you has faced similar challenges. Just do a little digging or talk to your peers and your roadmap may become clearer.