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Forbes.com “A Hard Sell For Soft Times”

Advertisers change their pitches to woo penny-pinching consumers. October was one of Wall Street’s worst months in history, yet it was one of Charles Schwab Corp.’s best. The broker attracted 30,000 new investors, 88% more than they pulled in the same month a year earlier.

The reason, company execs say, is a new ad campaign Charles Schwab Corp. (nasdaq: SCHW – news people ) created quickly and broke in September during Wall Street’s unraveling.

One TV commercial in the campaign opened with a question: “How can I put my faith in an economy that has let me down?” It closed with: “You’ve got to be somewhat optimistic.” In between, silver-haired Charles Schwab himself noted that he had seen “at least nine of these market corrections.”

The campaign “had to be respectful of what investors have experienced in this economy, and we’re seeing breathtaking results,” says Ben L. Stuart, senior vice president of brand marketing at the San Francisco company.

Financial service companies are among the marketers creating new campaigns or recasting old ad messages to attract jittery consumers. Some seek to position their brands as secure places in troubled times. Others aim to cajole cash-strapped consumers into soothing themselves by buying just a few fine things. Although ad spending typically plunges during an economic downturn–in 2001, spending for all media dropped nearly 10% from $104.5 billion the year before, says ad tracker TNS Media Reporting–a few marketers are boosting their ad spending to stand out at a time when other advertisers have pulled back.

Fidelity Investments aims to win back investors by pitching its businesses as safe havens that give customers some control. Ads read: “Take Control of your 401(k). We’re here to help.”

Citigroup (nyse: C – news people ), meanwhile, resurrected its tagline “Citi Never Sleeps”–it first broke in 1978–to help make the company seem more familiar and safe. It also suggests that this company, in these strenuous times, isn’t snoozing on the job. “We work around the clock,” goes one TV ad.

For other advertisers, value is a popular pitch. After noticing more people trolling for casserole ads on its Web site, Campbell Soup started advertising its products as soothing comfort food that are–oh, by the way–cheap. One print ad features cans of soup under the headline “The Original Dollar Menu.”

Meanwhile, McDonald’s (nyse: MCD – news people ) is hawking its line of $1.99 espresso drinks to woo penny-pinching fans who typically buy more expensive coffee. In Seattle, home of Starbucks (nasdaq: SBUX – news people ), the fast-food giant thumbs its nose directly at the more upscale purveyor. “Four dollars is dumb,” ads say. (See “Coffee Yes, Starbucks No.”)

But why leave home? Target (nyse: TGT – news people ) hopes to convince consumers who are in hunker-down mode to spruce up their digs with modest indulgences. In a campaign called “New day, new ways to save,” the retailer hawks throw $18 pillows as “the new home addition.” And the “new coffee shop?” A $25 espresso maker.

Meanwhile, STIHL, the power-tool maker, is trying to capitalize on consumer insecurity by pitching the reliability of its products. “Consumer confidence. Something you’ll always find in the STIHL portfolio,” reads one ad.

Other marketers hope to convince consumers to feel better with selective splurges. Before the holidays DeBeers rolled out a rapid-fire series of eight print ad executions–one of its largest-ever ad blitzes–from ad agency JWT New York, a unit of WPP Group (nasdaq: WPPGY – news people ), urging folks to buy “fewer, better things,” among other come-ons for its diamond jewelry. Did it work? Retail results are just starting to trickle in, says DeBeers spokesman Derek Teevan.

DeBeers won’t say what it spent on the effort, but the diamond company has hiked its ad budget significantly in recessions past. In 1982, it reportedly boosted spending 32% to $18 million.

Cigar maker Ghurka is ramping up its 2009 ad budget to take advantage of a lack of ad clutter in magazines. In 2008, Chief Executive Kaizad Hanasotia said he spent $300,000, 5% of the Miami company’s revenue that year, on ads in small luxury lifestyle publications, such as Ocean Drive and Opulent. This year, he plans to boost his budget by $50,000 to pitch its cigars, which sell for between $12 and $750 each. “The economy changes; we change,” says Hanasotia.

Historically, automakers have used recessions to pitch drivers. Chrysler introduced its cheapest car ever, a $495 Plymouth–one of its “Thrift Models”–in 1932, says Advertising Age. In the 1958 downturn, car makers paid for a promotion themed “You Auto Buy Now.”

But most car makers aren’t in a position today to bankroll big campaigns. Hyundai Motor America, however, is exploiting the tough times by striking an empathetic pose. Through its new “Assurance Program,” the company says it will buy back cars from customers who lose their jobs within a year of buying a Hyundai. The catch? The offer only stands for those who buy cars in 2009.

Last modified on April 15, 2015
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