Lessons from Retail Brands on How to Thrive During a Recession

May 13, 2020 | by David Lemley

There’s so much uncertainty in the economy right now as the nation begins to emerge from shelter-in-place mode. As consumers resume normal(ish) buying habits, what do the next several months hold for brands in the natural food and beverage space?

For some insight, we’re looking back to our experience during the Great Recession of 2008–2010. Specifically, to our work in guiding several best-in-class retail brands to thrive, not just survive, during a tough economic climate—essentially, to become recession-proof.

2020 Mirrors the Great Recession of 2008-10

Of course, the marketplace is quite different now. Over a decade ago, online buying was not widely accepted; Amazon was a place to buy books and clothes and home goods, but not food. Ecommerce represented 5.6% of all retail sales in 2007; 16% in 2019.

From a strictly economic perspective, though, there’s one major similarity between 2020 and 2008–10: consumers tightening their belts and closing their wallets, with family finances driving product choices and brand preferences.

As we enter another downturn, it’s helpful to look back to see what worked in 2008–10, what lessons can be applied to today.

3 Beloved Retail Brands Thrived Through Innovation

During the Great Recession, retailers had a ton of work to do to figure out how to rethink basic business functions—pricing structure, product mix, messaging—without the benefit of an omnichannel ecommerce platform like they have today.

The brands that thrived then were those whose capital-B Brand (the promises they make to consumers and the ways they keep them) were so potent that they became recession-proof. Their loyal fans never balked at paying a premium for their products or defected to competitors, even when price-shopping everything else.

We had this exact experience of helping three beloved retail brands navigate the same scenario that food and beverage brands are facing in 2020. We helped them create customer experiences that celebrated the passion of their audiences and become indispensable to their fans. These are stories of innovation, rethinking basics, and establishing new ways to call to the deep of passionate fans—those who will choose them no matter what and rave about them every chance they get.

Let’s look at these three purpose-driven retail brands and explore what naturals brands can learn about how to crush it during a recession.

REI

The outdoor outfitter with a devoted fan base went from a niche-y regional coop to a badgeworthy brand through innovation. We helped them connect with a new generation of enthusiasts with a range of initiatives, from redefining the company’s private label products to appeal to a broader audience, to changing the way they talked about their products, to reimaging the in-store experience with packaging and point of sale marketing. In a challenging marketplace, REI was able to separate itself from other outdoor retailers and brands by persuading consumers that being outdoorsy is in fact a lifestyle.

West Marine

For this boating supply company, recession-proofing meant creating a new way of engagement between the front-line salespeople and consumers. Previously, West Marine was kind of the NAPA Auto Parts of boating supply: the shopping experience was like picking out a new set of wiper blades, and salespeople viewed customers as uninformed pains in the neck. Our 360° Brand Development engagement with West Marine yielded new product packaging and communication, but the most recession-busting outcome was an overhaul of the customer-salesperson interaction. We helped create a new language and experience where employees became advocates and enthusiasts for the boating lifestyle and could engage with customers as fellow fans. West Marine’s business thrived during a time when boating was a discretionary expense.

PCC Natural Markets

In contrast to market leader Whole Foods, which offered a highly curated selection of organic and natural items, PCC has long offered an earnest activist-based food co-op experience (including a commitment that at any time 80% of the store would be organic). PCC was a favorite of the 1970s organic food tribe, who reveled in the underground nature of the organics foods movement, welcomed advocacy and saw the co-op as a way to “stick it to the man.” We helped reshape the brand to cater to people who simply care about the food they feed their loved ones, foodies, vegetarians, vegans—anyone who loves to know where their food comes from and who wants to make local community farming and natural food production part of popular culture. And to enjoy the badge brand quality of being part of a bigger movement. Notably, we upped the brand’s in-store education, elevated the foodie nature of the departmental experiences, increased the importance and visibility of local family farms, and helped their internal team make their cooking classes a must-do for the next generation. As a result, mid-recession PCC stores were jammed and sales were up everyday—despite the higher cost associated with local, natural, and organic foods—because PCC was able to help people become better versions of their natural-foodie selves.

How to Crush it During a Recession

We’ve all heard the phrase “hunker down” hundreds of times over the past few months. But this is not the time for your natural food and beverage brand to hunker down.

It’s not the time to get cautious, cut prices, shut down your R&D pipeline, gut your marketing outreach. It’s the opportunity to create an amazing future for the brand. This isn’t about survival; it’s about thriving. It’s about becoming a Beloved & Dominant Brand.

Humans crave experiences, and the time and attention they give to you has to be worth more than the transaction of paying the price for your product. So what are you doing to earn their passion? How do you make people feel when they’re with you? How are you embedding your brand in their lives?

A solid brand foundation will serve you well now more than ever (and if you need guidance on identifying your capital-B Brand, we can help). With it, you can innovate the right kinds of products that other brands can’t compete with. You can communicate with your audience in a way that makes them feel like participants in a shared story. Even if you don’t have a retail presence or front-line salespeople, you can make buying, opening, and enjoying your product into a meaningful experience for consumers.

We’ve seen this world before. And we’re happy to share what we’ve learned to help your brand thrive in 2020 and beyond. Give us a call.