How to market in a recession

February 11, 2009, 12:07 AM UTC
Fortune

A squad of smart marketers gathered for an NBC Universal-sponsored breakfast this morning atop the General Electric Building at Rockefeller Center. The topic du jour: “Marketing to Women in the Recession.” Turns out, the discussion, moderated by CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, was about marketing to all consumers in these dire times. I walked out with a few bits of wisdom:

Ogilvy & Mather chair Shelly Lazarus played, as she often does, the veteran sage. “You have to set the right tone,” she said, noting that tone is more critical today than ever. Apologizing to any PepsiCo people in the room (while not mentioning that Coca-Cola is her client), she jabbed at Pepsi’s new campaign – which is all about optimism. “A little too happy, given what’s going on right now,” she said.

Lazarus’ idea of a “pitch-perfect” message: Wells Fargo ‘s full-page ad in the New York Times yesterday. If you didn’t catch CEO John Stumpf’s harsh-toned missive (which generated incendiary critiques across the blogosphere), he managed, in one swoop, to censure the media for their critiques of employee offsites (“These one-sided stories lead you to believe every employee recognition event is a junket, a boondoggle, a waste, or that it’s for highly-paid executives. Nonsense!”) and praise his company’s best achievers (“For many, it’s the only time in their lives that they’re publicly recognized and thanked for a job well done. This recognition energizes them. It inspires them.”). Lazarus admired the CEO’s forthright approach.

Speaking of beleagured banking brethren, Citigroup CMO Lisa Caputo was also on the panel. She mentioned that money is the No. 1 topic of conversation in the typical U.S. household. Yes, more popular than sex, politics and religion. So determined a Citi survey six months ago. Money must be an even a hotter topic now, don’t you think so?

Whether buying financial services or packaged goods, consumers want “transparency and directness,” Caputo noted. Susan Lyne, Martha Stewart’s ex-CEO who now heads discount luxury-goods startup Gilt Groupe, agreed and added: “One of the key things not to do right now is cut back on service. People want help. People want to feel safe and taken care of.”

Meanwhile, the place where these marketing pros do not feel safe themselves is in the new world of social media. How does a marketer deploy Facebook and Twitter to her advantage? “It has huge potential, but nobody has figured it out,” observed Bartiromo.

“You can’t control it,” Lyne explained, adding that marketers “need to get a lot more comfortable that (social networking) is a conversation. It’s not something that you can use per se. It’s something that you participate in.”

One of the best users of social media, noted Citi’s Caputo, was Barack Obama in his presidential campaign. Interesting comment given that Caputo years ago was Hillary Clinton’s press secretary and last year tried to help get her elected president. She admitted that she told the Clinton strategists, “Please look at Obama’s Web site and steal it shamelessly.” But, she added, “They couldn’t get their heads around it.”