Brill Media

Recession Marketing Guide

How 18 Companies Thrived During Recessions

Businesses that increase spending during recessions increase their profits by up to 270% coming out of the recession.

A recession has been forecast for 2023 and into 2024 by every major news organization in the US. 

Access to cash is more expensive, and interest rates are at the highest they have been in decades. Mortgages are at a 23-year high. Inflation is causing consumers and businesses to feel the pinch of higher costs and lower value for their spending. It is more expensive for consumers and businesses to do everything, from buying a home to expanding a business.

When the economy declines, many businesses react by stopping their marketing expenditures, which is the wrong move. As the economy improves, spending returns to companies that maintain bonds for consumers.

Let us look at the companies that were created and thrived during the recession so you can weather the expected economic downturn.


Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky founded Airbnb in August 2007 as a way to create more income for themselves. Being unable to pay rent, they offered strangers a chance to stay with them for a fee. 

At the time, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) was at its local peak and about to drop. The economy was declining. Jobs were lost. Consumers cut back on spending. 

All the while, throughout 2007, the business didn’t get any real traction.

A year after AirBnB’s founding, the DJIA was down 20% from its high, and it was about to fall off a cliff as Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008. The economy was already plummeting into The Great Recession (2007 – 2010).

The two founders saw an opportunity to rent their beds to three guests looking to attend a design conference in San Francisco. AirBnB made it possible to help people earn incremental income by renting out spare beds or couches to travelers who needed an inexpensive place to stay. 

By August 2008, the company had three failed iterations of the business. They needed help finding product market fit or scalable business models. They just couldn’t get traction. To show for all their hard work was a binder full of maxed-out credit cards, $25,000 of debt, and bleak prospects for driving revenue, much less creating a lasting business. They needed something to keep revenue flowing. 

The latest relaunch was set for the 2008 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Denver in August 2008. Their site wasn’t making money, so they contextualized a novel marketing idea for the political audience attending the DNC: presidential cereal. 

Each box was sold as a limited-edition box of either Obama O’s or Cap’n McCains that sold on the street for $40, netting them $30,000. This was a critical inflection point for AirBnB.

AirBnB Obama O's marketing
AirBnB growth infographic

They had much-needed cash in hand to continue marketing their business. 

With time and money, they invested in improving AirBnB. Rental owners needed to improve listing photographs. The rooms could have looked more appealing. The two founders went door to door in NYC to take better photos of their rentals. In just one week, the two founders increased AirBnB’s revenue to $400 / week. This boost in revenue was a small win, but they had traction. 

Gebbia and Chesky faced multiple rejections from venture capital (VC) funders. They were eventually able to earn a $600,000 seed round investment from Sequoia Capital.

By 2011, Airbnb had grown and defined its product. They used search engine marketing internationally to grow their business. In addition to paid media, their international listings were helping travelers find rentals with the help of search engine optimization. Finally, they used Facebook ads to reach over 3 million likes, back when likes were important. AirBnB posted on Instagram and powered their YouTube channel with travel content. Airbnb posted on Twitter, blogs, and other social channels. The company offered referral rewards to spur word of mouth.

As of its last funding round, Airbnb was valued at $35B

 Key Takeaways

  1. Seek product/market fit as soon as possible 
  2. Earn money any way you can to keep your business alive
  3.  With your seed capital incrementally grow
  4. Surround your audience with marketing messages


DesignCrowd launched in 2008 as a marketplace for people wanting custom logos. 

The business leverages talent from all over the world to fulfill its services. Today, the company has expanded into various design services, including website creation, business cards, and presentations.

Alec Lynch, the founder, spoke to the podcast The Small Business Big Marketing Show. He shared that after getting his first customers with in-person meetings (which certainly isn’t the best way to scale a platform business), he found a better way to grow his business. He grew online through search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO) for the first four years of DesignCrowd.

The nature of DesignCrowd also inherently helps them grow through content distribution. Designers create tens—even hundreds—of different designs for one logo request, and by default, the designs are publicly available for search engines to discover unless the client makes the designs private. The result is lots of long-tail content that generated on the website, which makes the site very discoverable by Google.

Finally, DesignCrowd has run marketing campaigns powered by its platform, offering money for designers to develop pop culture memes. For one fun campaign, they asked their crowd to design politicians photoshopped with man-buns. The winners of the contest received a small payment. The best images were picked up by prominent media outlets, demonstrating the creativity of the platform as well as capturing attention for it.

Key Takeaways

  1.  Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are powerful ways to drive the discovery of your business.
  2. Leverage network effects so many people create lots of content that serves to improve your company’s SEO
  3. Figure out what sells, and then automate.


In the early 2010s, there was a magical moment when anyone could be the mayor of any place: sushi restaurant, pizza place, salon, or office address if you checked in on Foursquare enough times.

The game of friendly competition made Foursquare a popular consumer app that collected vast amounts of location data. The app was released in 2009 at South By Southwest (SXSW), a tech and entertainment conference.

The consumer app relied on the gamification of location activity. Check-in, get a badge, and sometimes retailers make special offers available. Mayors would get discounts, free food, and even recognition inside the place of business.

Foursquare growth accelerated in November 2009 when they opened their API to developers. The company learned from Apple that it was essential to create a developer community and an ecosystem of applications to power consumer adoption. 

Within a year, the company opened a second office and crossed the 1 million user threshold. 

Early company growth came from word of mouth fueled by the app’s release in new cities. Foursquare also ran press releases to garner attention. You can see their PR, publicity, and press release activities from the New York TimesBusiness InsiderChicago BusinessGigaomand HubSpot.

By 2014, Foursquare used outdoor advertising to increase interest in the app.

By 2019, Foursquare’s revenue surpassed $100 million.

As of 2023, they operate less as a consumer-facing app and more as a location data company. They have 120 million commercial points of interest (POI) mapped, powering some of the largest technology companies in the world. 

Key Takeaways

  1.  Leverage gamification and incentives to make mundane experiences fun.
  2. Create a platform for others to build on top of your technology
  3. Collect and leverage data for growth
  4. Leverage press releases and fun promotions to capture consumer attention


Instagram is a seminal tech story. What started as an 8 week build, during the America’s greatest economic downturn recession since The Great Depression, became a $1 billion exit two years later. At the time Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram was widely reported to be dramatically over priced. It was an excellent acquisition for Facebook, delivering Meta $51 billion in revenue in 2022. 

The founders created a massive business while the financial world was burning around them. The app aimed at competing with location check-in company Foursquare. Originally called Burbn it allowed users to share updates about their day, check-in at locations, see stories that were around them, and keep up with friends. 

The company’s internal usage data showed that active users were looking at, and sharing, photos. When Instagram streamlined its app to focus on photo sharing, its user base exploded. By 2015, they had 300 million users.

The company grew by leveraging the network effect of influencer advocates. Key influencers referred Instagram to their networks. In the first round of 25,000 users, a key influencer was Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter.

Other key influencers who were early to share the app included Kevin Rose, Founder of Digg, and Leo Laporte, a technology personality.

Just like with other technology startups, press played a role in gaining wider attention: TechCrunchBusinessInsiderTheNextWeb, and Forbes.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Even in the worst economic times, create. 
  2. Leverage your network to grow. 
  3. Build relationships. 



Netflix existed before the Great Recession, launched in 1997 by Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings. For over a decade, they were in the business of shipping DVDs of movies to consumers. 

During the Great Recession (2007 – 2010), the company thrived because it had a product consumers wanted, and they leaned into changing consumer behavior. Low-cost entertainment has become much more valuable to consumers. 

In January 2007, Netflix launched a novel plan: allow consumers to stream movies directly on TV, making it unnecessary to deliver and return individual movies through the mail.

By 2009, Netflix gained 3 million subscribers

According to their 2008 and 2009 annual reports, Netflix aggressively pushed for consumer growth with online promotions, banner ads, text ads, email marketing, TV and radio ads, and direct mail. 

In 2008, Netflix spent $199 million on marketing and increased that spending annually. Performance advertising was instrumental to customer acquisition. Instead of running advertising to build the Netflix brand, they were delivering messages asking consumers to sign up for Netflix immediately. They incentivized immediate signups with discounts., 

Netflix’s increasing subscriber count helped usher in a golden age in content development as Netflix led the way in funding for series and movies. Consumer spending had declined due to the economic downturn, so viewers turned to less expensive entertainment sources, with Netflix benefiting from this shift.

However, the increased subscriber count didn’t continue in a straight line. In 2011, the company lost 800,000 subscribers of its 23.8 million, depressing the stock to 25% of its value.


Image courtesy of

The reason for the subscriber loss was customer cost-cutting. Since the massive decline in 2011, when the stock was trading at $9.12 in November 2011, the stock has increased in the years since to $432.36 in November 2023, representing a 46-time increase in shareholder value. Today, the company has 247 million subscribers worldwide and 77 million in the U.S.

As of November 2023, Netflix has a market cap of $174B. Not surprisingly, this is one business that soared during the Pandemic Recession, with market cap reaching as high as $274B in September 2021. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Offer low-cost products to customers during recessions
  2. Innovate with technology when available
  3. Drive consumer acquisition aggressively


Snapchat launched in 2011 with the idea of passing a temporary message between friends. This innovation developed as Facebook was restricted in schools, and older audiences were aging up Facebook. Kids needed a new platform of their own, away from parents. If Facebook was the place to keep friends and family updated, Snapchat was the place to share fleeting ideas.

The first version of the app was called Picaboo and launched with 127 users. 

The critical growth element for Snapchat is word of mouth about the app among people close to the business. People, including Melissa Spiegel, co-founder Evan Spiegel’s mom, helped spread the word about the app to her niece and her high school friends.

Technology press played a role in crafting the Snapchat Story. In 2012, NYTimes reporter Nick Bilton published a story about teens and their indiscreet photo sharing on Snapchat. That story did two critical things: 

1. It solidified the narrative for many years that Snapchat was a sexting app, which Snapchat worked hard to dispel

2. Alerted teens about Snapchat. 

Around that time, there was a flurry of articles about Snapchat that created momentum about the business from TechCrunchThe GuardianTheNextWebForbes, and Bloomberg.

Despite the negative press from an adult’s perspective, the buzz around Snapchat made the app an appealing place for children looking to rebel from their parents.

In 2023, the company touts a market value of $18.3B

Key Takeaways

  1. Solve for unmet market needs
  2. Your network is your net worth, so enroll people close to you to seed your business among larger populations
  3. Use press, even the seemingly negative press, to your advantage.


Square launched in 2009 as an adaptable 1-inch card reader to help artists and non-traditional vendors accept credit card payments.

They recognized a problem. Many Americans were lining up to use their credit card instead of cash. Many small vendors, salons, food trucks, and pop-up stores needed help to afford the expensive credit card setup costs that larger retailers could. This changing consumer behavior left non-traditional businesses at a disadvantage when accepting payments. 


Upon launch, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, listed “140 Reasons Square Will Fail,” which he distributed to potential investors across Silicon Valley. 

The list addressed the naysayers and overcame their objections.

Towards the end of 2009, Square raised $10MM in funding.

Three years later, Square had a valuation of $3.2B.

Square used content marketing to share the stories of its customers. The team used influencers and niche marketing tactics to reach potential customers in specific industries most likely to use Square, such as beauty shops and food service providers.

The strategy was simple: fuel word of mouth among crucial influencers, make the customer the hero and speak to the needs of individual industries.

By May 2017, Square had processed $53B in transactions in the prior 12 months.

Key Takeaways

  1. Solve a challenge based on changing consumer habits
  2. Use your own experiences as a testing ground for new products
  3. Leverage your network
  4. Create discovery opportunities among key influencers


Uber was started in March 2009 while America was still in The Great Recession, though the economy was improving. 

According to the Uber history page, founder Travis Kalanick couldn’t find a ride in Paris in the dead of winter in December 2008. He was attending a tech conference called LeWeb, where “revolutionaries gather to plot the future.” With this inability to get around, he thought it would be helpful if there were an on-demand limo service available on his phone. 

By early the following year, he and his friend, co-founder Garret Camp, created an UberCab app. It was an accessible limo service. The initial thought was that people with affluence would want luxury limos at any time.

The idea ultimately morphed into a less premium version, where everyday people can get into someone else’s car and get a ride to their destination. Uber launched in New York.

They demonstrated their app at the SF App Show in 2010 and soon after launched their service in San Francisco, gaining popularity. By May of 2011, they expanded into New York.

By October 2012, they were in 20 cities, including Paris, Toronto, and London, and over 1 million customers. 

To get to these growth milestones, Uber expanded city by city rather than many cities at one time. Each location had its intricacies that needed addressing. Individuals went into each city to set up suppliers and car services to ensure a high-quality experience.

The company focused on restaurants, nightlife, holidays, events, weather challenges, and sports to accelerate consumer adoption. In these examples, driving one’s car created challenges Uber could fix. 

There were five categories of marketing that Uber deployed:

Advocacy among early adopters

  • Ask early users to spread the word about Uber and incentivize that word of mouth with referrals.


  • Pay people to share Uber with their friends


  • Through word of mouth and on the app, Uber thrived on reviews because the experience of getting into a stranger’s car on purpose was so new to most consumers. 

Like AirBnB, Uber took action with novel marketing approaches to create attention for the business. 

In 2012, Uber rolled out pop-up mariachis to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

In 2013, to celebrate Valentine’s Day, Uber riders could request #RomanceOnDemand, which included roses and a custom card.

In 2015, Uber let riders play with kittens for 15 minutes on National Cat Day. As the company has grown, they have used app install advertising campaigns to reach new customers.

Today, Uber is a massive company with services across the globe.

As of October 2023, Uber has a market capitalization of $84B, 2.3 times higher than its market cap in March 2020 of $36.77B. Uber remains the leader in ride-sharing. 

Their early growth came from event sponsorships, influencer marketing, and supporting advocates. For press and publicity, Uber developed fun marketing stunts.

Like other companies created during recessions, Uber benefitted from “less competition, less capital available, and more time to innovate.” Regarding Uber, an early seed investor says, “You want entrepreneurs responding to the challenge, being creative, working hard, and taking quick decisions are key traits for founders who are grabbing the bull by the horns.”

Key Takeaways

  1. Solve your real-life challenges
  2. Incentivize usage
  3. Be willing to change your business to it appeals to a broader market
  4.  Look for novel marketing ideas that will capture attention
  5. Demonstrate your product to anyone willing to listen

Vayner Media

Gary Vaynerchuk is an entrepreneur, marketer, motivational speaker, and leader in the advertising community. In 2009, after stepping away from his father’s liquor business, he created VaynerMedia in the conference room of another company’s office, Buddy Media, founded by Mike Lazerow. VaynerMedia offers social media marketing services, social customer service, and content development. 

Gary helped build his father’s liquor business from $3MM / year to $60MM / year by leveraging newly available digital and social media channels. One example of his work is Gary’s daily wine show, Wine Library TV on YouTube. The first episode aired in February 2006 when YouTube was a burgeoning video platform. The show took off in July 2007 when he appeared on the Conan Obrien show.  

So, Gary went into The Great Recession with a vision for his new business, prepared with the skills to grow it and the relationships to nurture it. Notably, he didn’t receive any payout or equity from the growth of his father’s wine business, so budgets were tight.

Gary invested early in Facebook and Twitter with money he’d saved while working for his father.

By 2009, he had assets:

  • Credibility in the tech startup investment world
  • Practitioner expertise in social media for business growth
  • The gift of being an engaging speaker 

VaynerMedia started when ESPN invited him to talk about Twitter. They asked him why he had more followers than Disney’s properties. 

Growth came from 

  1. building on existing relationships
  2. being able to have insightful conversations about the practice of social media
  3. The ability to find the right operational people to handle day-to-day business. 

Today, VaynerMedia is a $188 million creatively driven marketing company. Gary continues to pioneer the development of personal branding with the continued success of his speaking engagements, his podcast DailyVee, and ongoing social media content posting.

The following principles drive marketing for GaryVee:

  • Empathy for people and circumstances is key
  • Go where the attention is today and leverage those platforms for growth
  • Create opportunities for long-term success by being valuable to others
  • Create lots of content with minimum levels of quality
  • Develop content that is contextually relevant to the audience on the platform

These principles are both espoused and demonstrated directly in the content GaryVee creates. In other words, for an excellent content development framework, follow Gary Vee’s actions and mimic them.

Key Takeaways

  1. Become an expert at something valuable now, or that has the potential to be beneficial in the future
  2. Save money for the future, and live under your means
  3. Get good at enrolling people into your mission
  4.  Allow helping hands to help you

Grant Cardone

Grant Cardone is a real estate investor, sales professional, and motivational speaker who almost lost it all during The Great Recession when he was $50 million in debt. 

He was a millionaire before the Great Recession, losing much of his wealth as the markets declined in 2007 and 2008. Though he made conservative property investments before the downturn, property values fell so much that banks asked him to repay his $50 million debt.

During the downturn, Grant understood four key points that would help him rebuild:

  • Businesses need attention before people will buy
  • Social media was a new attention-gathering medium
  • To gain attention businesses need to provide valuable information
  • To scale attention-gathering systems, businesses need a team

He focused on building his brand as a conduit to building wealth. More name recognition would make it easier for people to buy from him. Grant used social media to grow his following by creating valuable educational content about sales and real estate. During the Great Recession and in the aftermath, he published books that improved his brand:

  • 2008
    • Sell To Survive
  • 2010
    • If You’re Not First, You’re Last
  • 2011
    • The 10X Rule: Sell or Be Sold
    • The Closer’s Survival Guide

Sell To Survive was self-published, which gave him control of the edits, the design, and, most importantly, the sales and marketing. 

In interviews, Grant says he does not write books for audiences. His books are written to help him sort out his thoughts on business and entrepreneurship. 

Today, Grant is the CEO of Cardone Enterprises, with services ranging from sales training to real estate development and business education. He has a $750MM net worth.

Grant survived The Great Recession by:

  1. Making conservative financial decisions before the downturn, allowing him to survive when others didn’t
  2. Creating new means of earning revenue by selling his books, using his innate sales skills, which is also one of the skills he’s known for
  3. Leveraging social media channels to build himself up
  4. Demonstrating growth comes with consistent attention-demanding content creation.

Key Takeaways

  1. Use new technology to gain on your competitors
  2. When times change, there is an opportunity to build wealth


In the 1920s, Post Cereal was battling Kellogg’s for dominance in the morning cereal market. Americans were just getting used to having additional options from the two breakfast staples: oatmeal and cream of wheat. When the Depression struck, Post predictably cut back spending, and Kellogg’s doubled its ad spending to push its new cereal Rice Krispies

By 1933, still in The Great Depression, Kellogg’s profits increased almost 33%, and it had solidified its position as the dominant cereal manufacturer in America.

In 2023, Kellogg’s brings in $15 billion in annual revenue. Post receives only $5 billion in yearly revenue. 

Key Takeaways

  1.  If you want to gain market share against your competitors, accelerate your marketing even when they slow down their marketing.
  2. Don’t do the predictable thing of cutting costs during a recession
  3. Advertise new products that respond to consumer needs.


During The Great Depression, radio advertising hit its stride. From 1929 to 1939, the combined revenues of radio networks increased from $18.7MM to $80MM. The rise of radio during this period corresponded with the creation of some of the most well-known ad agencies in the world to help brands figure out radio. 

McCann-Erickson launched to advertise Nabisco. Leo Burnett was found to handle Minnesota Canning Co (makers of Green Giant Pees, renamed Green Giant Company in 1950, and merged with Pillsbury in 1979), and Young & Rubicam serviced General Foods (now Kraft).

Until the Great Depression, Nabisco had a long history of selling crackers under Uneeda Biscuit. In 1934, they created a new brand of cracker to give struggling Americans a small premium luxury treat that anyone could afford. This brand, Ritz, became the world’s largest-selling cracker in three years. Nabisco relied heavily on advertising and radio to reach consumers with novel messages.

Ads tutored customers on using crackers as fillers to stretch more expensive products, assuring insecure customers that thriftiness was a proud food choice used by all Americans. 

Key Takeaways

  1.  Leverage new media and new practices to reach customers
  2. Create new products and positioning to reflect customer needs
  3. Use advertising to get your message out to the public at scale.

Proctor and Gamble

Proctor and Gamble (P&G), the company behind many daily products we buy today, including Pampers, Downy, Tide, Bounty, Gillette, and Old Spice, created one of the most indelible marks on the entertainment landscape. 

During the Great Depression, P&G created the soap opera, programming designed for middle-class families sponsored by soap brands. The show As The World Turns, which ran for 54 years to 2010, was one of 20 shows produced by P&G. 

P&G’s first soap sponsorship was “Ma Perkins,” a radio show by Oxydol. According to the official history of P&G, the strength of the sponsorship led “P&G brands to sponsor numerous new ‘soap operas.’ Faithful listeners became loyal buyers of P&G brands at the grocery.”

That one successful sponsorship paved the way for decades of soap operas sponsored by P&G. By 1929, it produced 21 different shows, and by the 1940s, P&G started its own production company.

Because the company created a novel new marketing opportunity through soap operas, P&G thrived during The Great Depression. 

Key Takeaways

  1.  Content is always king
  2. Messaging frequency builds relationships
  3. Entertained customers will continue to buy your products
  4. Look for new and novel ways to grow consumer attention

Domino's Pizza

Domino’s Pizza launched in 1960. It was a well-known brand, but it was known for the wrong things. It wasn’t a beloved brand when the economy slowed down in 2009. 

They were “under siege for its lousy food and mediocre service.” When the economy slows down, value options, including pizza, will thrive just by directly because consumers are looking for lower-cost options. So, their poor perception was a big problem. To combat the poor perception, they fundamentally changed their business with the leadership of Patrick Doyle, who took over as CEO in 2010. The company focused on three key areas:

  • Taste
  • Technology
  • Marketing

Arguably, the most significant change came when they changed their pizza recipes. Domino’s developed new pizza recipes with “richer, spicier sauce, tastier cheese combinations, and a buttery crust with garlic and herbs.”

The company created a pizza tracking app that dramatically improved communication with customers.

One of the biggest concerns customers have when ordering pizza is whether the phone order is recorded correctly. To solve this, the Domino’s app, for the first time, gave the customer a way to track every step of the process, from the order to the knock on the door.

Finally, the comapny’s marketing campaign was bold, directly addressing the poor taste of their pizzas, with ads showing honest consumer reviews of their pizza. Ads heard consumers describing Domino’s as “worst pizza I ever had,” “the sauce tastes like ketchup,” and “the crust tastes like cardboard.” Their ads presented an honest look at consumer perception, and paid off with the various changes they made. 

The marketing initiative included 

In 2008 the company recorded US sales of $3.03B, almost flat compared to 2007 US sales of $3.037B. In 2010 the company realized sales of $3.316B in the US, a 9% increase in sales as they rolled out a completely new product and marketing.

Dominos increased market share from 9% in 2009 to 15% in 2016. 

Key Takeaways

  1.  Scale up your advertising messages to reach consumers with new offerings
  2. Deliver messages that honestly reflect consumer perspectives
  3. Seek to change negative perception with high reach and frequency campaigns that reach the majority of your target audience
  4. Innovate to alleviate customer concerns about your product

Salt & Straw

Who wants pear and blue cheese ice cream?

Kim and Tyler Malek started Salt & Straw at the height of the Great Recession from a little cart in Portland, Oregon. Their ice cream cart was successful, partially due to its unique flavors, like bone marrow and smoked cherries. 

In 2008, the duo began talking to banks, pulling money out of retirement, and creating a network of support to build the business.

By 2011, they opened their first store after their pushcart had acquired substantial word of mouth due to the high-quality ice cream and unique flavors. 

On the Faces of Marketing podcast, Kim says that: 

  • marketing starts with a strategy
  • The strategy builds a brand,
  • A brand is a way of making people feel certain things related to your business
  • Marketing speaks to those feelings. 

The brand Salt & Straw is defined by Kim’s commitment to creating a community gathering place and crafting a solid customer experience, led by the company’s artisan ice cream flavors that change monthly. “Every single flavor of ice cream on the menu when we opened had a person behind it that we worked with, and we could tell that story.

Salt & Straw posted on social media early on, with their first photo on the official Salt & Straw page showing a recipe, a kitchen, and a bucket full of ice cream in the recipe creation process.

According to Kim, Salt & Straw does much marketing, relying on PR and social media in the early days.

They posted on Instagram and Facebook and connected with content creators on YouTube starting in 2012. The local news covered their launch, which was featured on their Facebook page. By all appearances, marketing, brand building, and creating a stellar product are all different facets of the same creativity that drives a person to launch a business.

Key Takeaways

  1.  Test your product inexpensively, and then grow if you have product/market fit.
  2. Make customers feel something positive about your business
  3. Use the community to build your business
  4. Leverage inexpensive social media and public relations opportunities


This chain serving delicious burgers launched in 2007 in Denver, as the economy was tanking. Their burgers are differentiated by their style of rolling chopped Angus beef into balls and then smashing them on the grill, made to order. 

The company thrived during the recession for a few reasons. First, their offering fell directly in line with changing consumer habits. Consumers were looking for lower-cost food options. Their concept made burgers a little more interesting. Smashing the thin burger patty on the grill almost instantly caramelizes the patty. They also offer unique menu items regionally.

The company identified 14 different types of consumers it served and marketed to them primarily with social content posting, local marketing, and word of mouth. Their word-of-mouth and influencer marketing tactics are based on finding locals on Twitter, Yelp, and blogs that will create content in exchange for an invite to eat at Smashburger. Having a fun story to tell helps make the Smashburger story shareable among influencers.

By 2012, with 160 restaurants, the chain launched its first large-scale marketing push, including TV and radio, to drive trials and generate repeat traffic to its locations.

To create new customers and gain their loyalty, Smashburger promoted their Smashpass, an offer allowing pass holders to order an ala carte item free once a day for 100 days.

By 2017, the restaurant chain had 380 stores in 38 states and nine countries.

In 2018, Jollibee Foods Corporation, a Philippines-based company, acquired 85% of Smashburger and continues to fund its international growth.

Key Takeaways

  1.  Segment your audience and speak to them
  2. Let influencers tell your story
  3. Create a fun story for your customers to tell


During The Great Depression, Chrysler launched the Plymouth brand, going head to head with Ford and Chevrolet, the dominant car manufacturers of the time. 

Up to that point, Chrysler was the third player in the US for car manufacturing. Plymouth was Chrysler’s first offering for low-priced cars. During economic downturns, consumers are seeking lower-cost options. By 1933, Chrysler had overtaken Ford, becoming the #2 manufacturer in market share. Plymouth sales were a bright spot among other dimming prospects for Chrysler.

To grow the brand, Plymouth advertised in newspapers with copy-heavy descriptions of the car, the manufacturing process, and personal messages from Walter Chrysler. With a revamp of their advertising campaign in 1932, Plymouth’s share of the low-priced car market jumped from 16% in 1932 to 24% in 1933.

Key Takeaways

  1.  Give consumers lower-priced options during recessions
  2. Advertise your business to get the message out
  3. There is opportunity in times of change

De Beers

De Beers, the world leader in diamond manufacturing, faced a challenge during the Great Recession. 

How does a brand build on exclusivity and the luxury market at a time when consumer spending is dramatically reduced? The answer is a change in their messaging

Their research revealed that consumers perceive diamonds to retain their value in the long term. That insight was leveraged in the 2008 holiday season when the company doubled its advertising spending with messages including “Here’s to less” and “Fewer better things” because a “diamond is forever.” The company saw profits drop in 2009 and rebound 261% by 2011.

DeBeers revenue during The Great Recession

Decades earlier, it was De Beers who created the simple notion that diamonds are the inevitable gift that a man gives a woman when proposing marriage. This notion has only sometimes been the case.

In 1938, while the US was still in The Great Depression, Harry Oppenheimer worked with an ad agency to make giving a diamond ring upon proposal as ubiquitous as apple pie. 

The marketing plan set out to make giving a diamond ring the only symbol of romance by inserting that imagery into pop culture through movies, photography, and societal iconography. Diamonds can be harmed, turned to ash, chipped, and discolored, even though the repeated message consumers see about diamonds is that “diamonds are forever.” Between 1939 and 1979, De Beers’ wholesale value increased from $23MM to $2.1B.

Key Takeaways

  1. Use advertising at scale to reinforce a consumer idea that will create demand for your product
  2. Change messaging during the recession to align with consumer values.
  3.  Run advertising to assist in sales rebounding as consumers get back to spending money as the recession subsides.


Wrap Up

Marketing is the driver of business growth, and it’s needed more than ever during an economic downturn. We see business leaders become recession superheroes by bucking the innate need to cut back on spending. Instead, recession superheroes invest in creating new demand when times are tough, which yields outsized returns when the economy improves.

  • Create products and services that respond to changing consumer needs.
  • Use marketing to influence a small number of high-value investors
  • Deploy messages on new communications tools (social media was new during The Great Recession, radio was still a growing medium at the start of The Great Depression)
  • Maintain a connection to consumers with high reach and frequency advertising.
  • Leverage advertising data to find their best customers and their best products.
  • Parlay experience into new products and services
  • Use PR, press, and less expensive channels like social media to create demand.

Real World Marketing Examples

During the Pandemic Recession (2020), brands put into place marketing efforts to reach consumers with messages reacting to a dramatically changing consumer environment. 

The commonalities across brands include:

  1. Messages contained positivity in the wake of an uncertain future. 
  2. Brands delivered multiple ad messages with slight variations to determine the best ad messages to run.
  3. Brands offered discounts. 
  4. Businesses maintained continued consumer outreach for business-to-consumer (B2) and business-to-business (B2B) companies.  

The marketing messages below were captured in March 2020.

Message: Product and brand

Hersheys ran creative tests. Notice the two ads have the same image and different Facebook primary texts. This is a great way to understand your all-star ad creative. 

Facebook Ads for Hersheys chocolate

Message: We’re open

Obvious in normal times, but during stay-at-home orders, it had to be noted. Also note the creative testing of different offers.

Papa John's Pizza banner advertising

Message: Savings

Dynamic creative testing is a powerful way to determine what your customers want from your business.

Message: Discount

Even during business uncertainty Jira maintained its discount offer to keep B2B clients prospect to Jira. 

Message: Positivity

May your mind continue to wander and dream of days spent under the Curacaon sun”

Ran: March 2020

Why It’s Important:

When travel resumes after the Pandemic come to Curacao

In 2023 the Curacao Tourism Board reports record visitations, 18% higher than 2022 visitations.

Message: Value ($90 value for $45) and relevancy (Smile brighter on that Zoom video)

Message: Ongoing connection.

Gary Vee continued to connect to his audience even when stay-at-home orders demanded people remained at home.

Message: Support.

The key messages of being helpful and providing support were some of the most important messages during the Pandemic Recession.

Message: Respond to change in consumer behavior

During the pandemic when children needed to stay home, this brand repurposed their use cases for immediate consumer needs. 


Message: Respond to change in consumer behavior

Square helps people “make that first online sale,” a very relevant message when many small and large businesses were pivoting to online platforms. 


Message: Value

Sketchers was testing value-driven offers for consumers. They also ran ad variations to get the best ad results.


Message: Help

“We’re here to help,” was a very important messages during the pandemic. 


Message: Safety

“Travel with confidence,” was key message relating to safety measures during the pandemic.


Message: Positivity

Both social messages reflect happiness, experiences, and the collective need to get through the early stages of the pandemic.


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