Why you should keep your light on when other brands go dark

With bankruptcies in the Nordics reaching its highest in over a decade, it’s no surprise that companies are cutting back on marketing. But it’s a balancing act of cutting to survive today and investing to grow tomorrow.

By Christine Gelfgren

Why you should keep your light on when other brands go dark

With bankruptcies in the Nordics reaching its highest in over a decade, it’s no surprise that companies are cutting back on marketing. But it’s a balancing act of cutting to survive today and investing to grow tomorrow.

By Christine Gelfgren

In Byron Sharp’s ‘How Brands Grow’, arguably one of the most influential marketing books of the past decade, he urges brands to never be silent. Why is that so important? The importance of the relationship between a brand’s market share and its share of voice, meaning how prominent the brand’s advertising is within its sector compared to its competitors, is well-known. Brands that have a higher share of voice than their market share have what’s called an “excess” share of voice and tend to grow relative to their competitors.

This relationship becomes parti­cularly evident in times of economic downturn. Previous recessions serve as cautionary tales for companies who are considering to weather the storm by cutting significantly on marketing spend.

History offers us a blueprint

We live in what feels like unprecedented times, but ironically unprecedented times are the norm for every generation that’s come before us. Whether uncertain times have been caused by pandemics, wars or financial crises, we have more than a century’s worth of data showing the true cost of going silent when faced with uncertainty.

One of the first to study this was Vaile in 1927, who made a detailed ­examination of 200 companies ­during the economic depression and subsequent growth period post WWI. Companies that amplified their adver­tising budgets during the economic downturn not only maintained ­stability but experienced significant growth in sales. In contrast, companies that ­either reduced or abstained from ­advertising during this period lagged in sales performance.

Shortly after, Post, the ready-to-eat cereal category leader, saw themselves dethroned by Kellogg’s ­during the Great Depression. When Post slashed their ad spend, Kellogg’s doubled its budget, invested innovatively in radio ads and launched the now iconic cereal Rice Krispies. The aggressive marketing strategy yielded a 30% surge in profits and positioned Kellogg’s as the category leader, a title it has maintained for several decades.

Since then, the marketing landscape has evolved significantly, but the core truth remains unchanged. With each economic downturn, brands face the same decision—pull back or push forward. Brands that maintain, or even amplify, their advertising efforts in broad reaching media during tough times stand a better chance of not just surviving but thriving.

What happens when brands go dark

For brands considering trimming their advertising spend, the good news is that up to six months off air won’t have detrimental effects on your brand, at least not according to a ­recent study by Millward Brown. The bad news is that if you continue after that it will ­likely weaken brand health, and once decline sets in, it may be hard to reverse.

Kantar documented a telling case in which a leading UK beverage brand, enjoying a steady market share, chose to halt its advertising in one market for an entire year, while maintaining its marketing investment in another. The market that went dark had a discernible 2% dip in market share, whereas the market that maintained spend held steady. When the brand eventually resumed its marketing the subsequent year, it couldn’t reclaim its lost share.

A comprehensive study from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute that obser­ved 365 U.S. brands gives further weight to this. When brands halted their advertising, they saw an average 10% decline in market share after one year, 20% after two years, and 28% after three years without advertising. Interestingly, smaller brands or those that were already experiencing a dip in their share before pulling their ads were more susceptible.

Short-term choices often have long-term consequences, and consistently sidelining advertising can be deva­stating for a brand’s future growth.

Finding opportunities when others cut back

While most brands won’t turn off ­advertising completely in times of economic downturn, they likely won’t spend with the same intensity. For the brands that are able to resist cost ­cutting and maintain spend, they can often achieve an excess share of voice at a cheaper price. It’s like speaking with a steady voice in a room that all of a sudden gets a lot quieter, which gives you much more bang for the buck.

The IPA database underscores this strategy’s effectiveness, showing that 38% of companies reporting significant profit growth after the 2008 ­recession had increased their excess share of voice to over 8%.

By understanding the relationship between market share and the power of excess share of voice — especially when it’s more affordable — you’re set to make decisive, informed decisions, no matter the economic climate.

Creativity’s role

Just as it’s crucial to strive for ­excess share of voice, the same goes for ­obsessing about delivering creative advertising. Creative campaigns are twice as effective, and the audience remembers you more easily when the advertisement invokes an emotional response.

Featuring a cute dog in a ­commercial is a cheap trick to ramp up ­customers’ emotional response, and a 2022 study published in the Journal of Marketing discovered that people are more ­excited to buy products when they see dogs in ads. It’s no wonder that Amazon’s latest Super Bowl ad, featuring a heartwarming story of a ­rescue dog, scored among the highest in System1’s effectiveness study.

But just as the share of voice is relative to your category, so are your creatives. If all your competitors start using cute puppies in their commercials, the emotional response relative to your category levels out. The customers will then have a hard time attributing the commercial to the right advertiser and suddenly that puppy is just part of the noise, lost in a sea of furry faces vying for your attention.

Looking ahead

Having a steady voice when the room gets quieter will be one of the most ­important things brands can do to ­ensure their future growth through these tougher times. Incorporating emotion, creativity, and ingenuity into your brand will amplify it to echo longer in the minds of consumers. It’s about understanding the nuances of your category, being aware of the saturation points, and having the foresight to pivot when needed. In the end, it won’t just be about who shouted the loudest, but rather who resonated the most.

Why you should keep your light on when other brands go dark

Christine Gelfgren
Marketing Strategist, Schibsted
Years in Schibsted: 0.5
My favourite song the last decade: Yellow Moon – Amason