San Diego Business Journal

Free market. Commerce. Is it crass to think about advertising when the nation has experienced such a profound assault? No, not if you believe in capitalism.

And let's face it, capitalism is what makes America the most powerful nation in the world. It's what President Bush has been touting as a necessary ingredient to surviving the terrorism we've faced.

As RCA and NBC mogul Robert W. Sarnoff said, "Advertising is the foot on the accelerator, the hand on the throttle, the spur on the flank that keeps our economy surging forward."

If that's true, it's only logical to follow with: Never take your foot off the accelerator when traveling uphill. Brand equity can slip if you react by slashing your marketing efforts. Those who cut leave a gaping hole for others to fill. Smart brands will use the time to reinforce the bond with their customer base.

Innovation and creativity are critical.

You don't have to spend a lot of money to make your message count. Consider the following nine steps to maintaining momentum when the nation's engines cough and sputter.

o Step 1:

Review your internal operations.

Begin by asking yourself the following questions: Do you have the right team? Are your systems and procedures working correctly?

Is your staff responding to your existing customers with the right attitude, message and culture? Have you had to cut staff or not replace those who have left?

In times of crisis, take time to bolster your team atmosphere internally. Do some internal marketing.

It's hard enough to have to let people go because of the economic crunch, but make sure those who remain have a sense of security and teamwork. Get your people involved, ask them how to help recharge the business.

Listen to your staff. What are they hearing from customers? Marketing should be customer driven, so it's important to hear what they are saying.

If you're hiring, take advantage of the glut of good employees on the market. A few months ago unemployment was at an all time low and the best people were secure in jobs.

A lot of really good people are looking for work; consider using them as consultants if you can't hire outright.

o Step 2:

Review your budget.

If you must trim your marketing budget, consider where to cut and what the consequences may be. If sales are down and you eliminate the budget, you may be eliminating your conduit to the customer's world.

Consider other areas where budget should be cut, and possible deals available from media sources. After all, they're feeling the pinch too.

In-house marketing teams may be expensive when salaries and benefits are considered. Outsourcing marketing efforts to an agency or freelancers can provide quick, quality work for short-term projects that can get you through lean times. You can purchase piecemeal without making a huge financial investment. An external team may provide a perspective more akin to your customers' (by being outside your company), and will offer honest evaluation of your brand position.

With some outside expertise, you can use this time as an opportunity to strengthen your identity and image.

o Step 3:

Review your products/services.

Ask yourself these questions: What do you really provide for your customers? Is your product or service well defined?

Do others understand its uniqueness? Is your current customer base the only group that can use the product? Can it be adapted to other uses?

What are the reasons people come to you rather than your competitors? Who are your competitors? What messages do they have that make them stand out in the marketplace?

Everyone has a specialty, it's either the services they offer or the market they approach. Specialties are important, they make you stand out and keep you from attempting to be all things to all people.

But don't limit yourself. If you manufacture widgets, then look at your specialty as manufacturing, not widgets. Now, what else can you manufacture?

o Step 4:

Review your target market.

Identify more clearly who uses your products or services. Then define whom you are targeting to determine if you can diversify your customer base.

If your current customer base has suffered in this economic downturn, identify potential new customers. Approach the process as you would a new stock to purchase. Determine what types of companies are filling a growing need today and determine if they may be a market to target.

For instance, look at who didn't suffer economically in this crisis. The defense industry is one.

Consider targeting them with your marketing. Also, what is your competition doing? Target the people they may be ignoring.

o Step 5:

Review your brand position. Whether you outsource or use an internal marketing team, review your market and category and determine whether your brand's positioning needs adjusting. Last year's position may not apply in the wake of a crisis. Is the way you have positioned your brand or your company compatible with what you are selling today? You may need to update your positioning to be a winner in today's market.

o Step 6:

Analyze the method to your media.

While focusing on who you target and what you say, also consider how you reach your customers. If forced to cut your marketing budget don't disappear completely.

You can keep your name in front of your customers using a more targeted media mix. Go back to Step 4, which defined your customers. Is the media you've used in the past the most effective way to reach them?

Habit sends us back to our traditional channels, but you may overlook the unique opportunities that are not as glamorous, but perhaps more effective. Consider industry newsletters, neighborhood papers, or even bus benches. Be creative in your media choices, and you might find yourself reaching more people for less money.

Consider the difference between mass marketing and target marketing. If you really don't sell to a broad cross section of the population, then find a way to target your customers more directly.

Methods you may want to investigate include:

o Direct mail. Try shifting advertising funds from large mass-media outlets such as major daily papers or broad-spectrum television into cost-effective and targeted media, and direct-to-consumer channels. Direct mail pieces put your message in the hands of your customer.

They are an excellent way to disseminate one specific message while enhancing your brand with some great subliminal messages (attitude, personality, etc.). Whether your piece is advertising a rebate or discount, a service or a product, it needs to command the attention of your target individuals.

Actually, rebates are a great idea. Offer them for volume purchases. This may encourage existing customers to weather the storm with you.

o Internet. E-mail distribution is another great way to target individuals. More than 62.6 percent of all San Diego adults are online every month. In the business sector the percentage is much higher.

Just like traditional mailing lists, e-mail address lists are available. E-mail blasts are an inexpensive but effective way to target specific people. The content can be elaborate, including flash animation, or simply a standard text message.

The interactive nature of rich media sets it apart from straight text e-mail message. Rich media is graphically attractive. Instead of creating a one-way presentation like a television commercial (or a traditional e-mail), rich media messages invite the consumer to interact with the ad to gain additional information or insight into the advertiser's products or services.

For example, a rich media ad from a car manufacturer might ask the consumer a few questions about their lifestyle, and then deliver information about a particular car model suited to the consumer's choices. Alternatively, a toy company might offer a simple game to show off their latest product. You could choose to sell your product directly within the rich media ad.

Finally, evaluate your Web site. Is it working as hard for you as it ought? Can you market it better to do more work for you? Investing in upgrades or a new look, then sending an e-mail blast to advertise it can help you gain exposure.

Web sites need to be marketed continually to keep traffic to your site at a maximum. Don't develop good Web content, and then forget to tell your existing or potential customers it's there.

o Radio and television. While considered a mass medium, radio allows you to target your retail customer specifically, by station and their target market, and by individual programming within the day on specific stations.

And television has a lot of buying opportunities, including not only high profile network programming, but also more specifically targeted shows on each channel and on cable networks. You don't have to buy "60 Minutes" or the five o'clock news to reach people with TV.

o Step 7:

Review your marketing messages. Rather than cut your budget, reevaluate your message. Champion values that make your company (and America) strong. But be sensitive to the situation.

For example, the car industry is offering 0.0 percent financing to motivate people to buy. Their message is "keep America rolling." The emotional connection is that folks can help stimulate the economy by making a purchase, plus they save money by not paying interest. It's a win/win situation.

o Step 8:

Create a public relations campaign.

Often pegged as "free advertising," public relations is a well-planned and orchestrated communications tool. The more visible you are, the more the public perceives you're worth.

Keep your name out there. Use PR effectively to talk about your business, what you're doing to help the economy, and your customers. Let your positive/professional attitude lend confidence to your customers and potential customers. You probably do a lot of newsworthy things in the course of doing business, but does your public know?

One key to good coverage can be to host a noteworthy event or practice. For instance, Toys-R-Us designated a week for children to come in and draw a flag.

For every flag drawn, Toys-R-Us donated $1 to the Toys-R-Us Children's Fund. The flags were displayed in the stores. Customers came, drew flags, bought something for their kids, and got to feel good about helping other children.

This kind of cause-related marketing is excellent. It can increase your customer base and help a good cause at the same time. Cause marketing can build credibility and goodwill for your brand, attract new customers, motivate your staff, differentiate your brand, and increase sales.

o Step 9:

Plan for the future. Regardless of how successful each of the other steps are for you, take some time to concentrate on long-term plans for your business growth.

Use down time at the office to develop new skills and strategies. Anticipate the market. Think about what goods or services will be demanded as a result of these hard times, then figure out how you can help meet that demand.

As Americans, we don't retreat from obstacles, but instead look for opportunities to grow and develop in spite of obstacles. Make this an opportunity to solidify your market now, so as the economy recovers you are positioned for growth.

Oster is the president of Oster & Associates, Inc., a full-service advertising, marketing, and public relations agency located in Sorrento Valley.