Marketers strive for value

Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain compares this economic crisis to the one that triggered the Great Depression: Look back to the 1929 period “to see the kind of slowdown we’re experiencing now,” said Thain — who sold his firm to Bank of America — at a conference yesterday. Thain’s outlook is scary–and marketers are getting his message. Have you noticed how some of the big-brand companies are adjusting to the doom and gloom?

Starbucks , for instance, is launching marketing schemes to offer discounts without being seen as a discounter. This morning, Pattie and I both bought the new Starbucks Gold Cards. Even though she was tough on the company and CEO Howard Schultz in her post yesterday, Pattie goes to Starbucks at least once a day. At that rate, she’ll save, she figures, $130 a year with the card.

Meanwhile, Procter & Gamble is pitching its pricey Olay Regenerist line as a value proposition, as the New York Times noted in a story this week. And Nike announced a new line of $65 Converse basketball shoes to be sold exclusively at J.C. Penney — downscale for the typically premium-priced marketer. During a recent earnings call, Nike management noted that a deal with Target to sell its Converse “One Star” brand is performing beyond expectations.

This flurry of downscaling makes me wonder: How did marketers behave after the 1929 market crash? I got the key to the archive here at Fortune and pulled the first copy, from February 1930. (The price was $1, outrageous at the time.) It’s jam-packed with ads for fancy cars and boats and airplanes. It’s all about quality and luxury. Depression? What Depression?

So what about value? One ad in the first issue of Fortune, for the Alexander Hamilton Institute, offers “A New Course and Service for men who want to be independent in the next five years.” It refers to the run on the banks: “In a brief period of their days between October 15th and November 15th, 1929, thousands of men who supposed that they were secure for life found themselves suddenly ruined.”

But beyond that, the ads that supported Fortune‘s launch don’t even hint that anything is awry in the U.S. economy. Denial, I guess, helped Fortune get off the ground. — Jessica Shambora

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