Marketing Through a Downturn

by Monique Hayward

With my customers feeling the impact of the slow economy as white-collar-job losses mount and their investment portfolios dwindle in value, I've had to adjust my marketing strategy for Dessert Noir Cafe & Bar.

Revenue is hard to come by these days, but it's critical to stay visible in the marketplace and engaged with my customers so no one "forgets" we are still here.

In the absence of budget to launch big promotional campaigns and advertising programs, I have been implementing a low-cost marketing and PR strategy. What we’re doing differently is taking advantage of our unique selling point in the market to capitalize on consumers’ moves “down menu,” i.e., buying appetizers, small plates, and desserts at lower prices rather than high-priced entrees and large meals.

When we introduced our fall menu in October, we offered more value-oriented choices, including extending our happy hour to seven days a week, to give our customers more choices at lower price points. In November, we took this strategy another step farther and updated our menu to eliminate all the slow-selling items (“dogs”) so my staff has fewer food and beverage items to manage and can concentrate on delivering the core items extremely well.

Despite the downturn, consumers eventually get weary of all the bad news and want to treat themselves to a night out, and they will certainly be looking for a range of dining and entertainment options. This gives us a great opportunity to keep the business in the spotlight, particularly in the press. With that said, I have been focused on generating more publicity for my business on both a local and national scale to generate buzz and position myself as a small business expert on the front lines. PR gives us awareness and credibility, and while this approach is not different from my marketing strategy under normal business conditions, I have been even more vigilant about finding opportunities because they cost nothing but time and generate tremendous ROI on the back end.

PR Opportunities 

One great resource is Help A Reporter Out (HARO). PR expert Peter Shankman created HARO, a free service which connects journalists in online, broadcast, and print media with sources on a wide variety topics, including business, finance, health, fitness, and technology. Each day HARO sends registered users up to three emails, each with anywhere from 15-30 queries per email. If there's a query that you'd be the perfect source for the journalist, you answer it directly. There are several queries a week from journalists who are doing stories about entrepreneurs and small businesses. If you are not a member of HARO, you need to get yourself signed up today.

I can tell you from experience that it works! I have landed features in the Phoenix Business Journal newspaper and Entrepreneur and Restaurant Startup & Growth magazines and contributions to the BizChicksRule and Credit and Collections blogs and the Gaebler Ventures web site. In addition to HARO, I've been "hustling" for stories on my own. Recent highlights include appearances on CNN’s “Your World Today with Tony Harris,” “Restaurant of the Week” on KATU Channel 2’s “AM Northwest” news magazine show, and remote broadcast of a local TV station’s evening news program from the restaurant.

Joint Marketing

Another option that allows me to get more bang for my limited marketing bucks is joint marketing and selling with suppliers, customers, or complementary businesses. I don’t have to look far to create joint marketing opportunities, nor do I have to spend a lot of money to achieve good results. Here’s a case in point: My restaurant is located next to our town’s main movie theater, and for the Sex and the City opening in May, we collaborated with a local salon and spa, the Grand SalonSpa, on free chair massages, prize giveaways, and $5 cosmos and logged our best sales day ever.

Being next to a movie theater strengthens our value proposition as movies are still considered “cheap” entertainment and our customers have always combined an evening at the movies with a visit to the restaurant before and/or after the show. In early 2009, I'm working with a special event promotion company, Odds on Promotions, to offer a $15,000 cash prize giveaway for a promotion that I’ll do for Academy Awards season. I think I can get a lot of buzz going around this, especially if the economy remains as dour as it is now, and again, it won't cost me a lot of money.

Business Challenges

Business has always been challenging for my restaurant, as I've documented in this blog over the years. As I noted, we’ve been seeing the signs of this recession for more than a year and a half already. With the economy presenting challenges that are beyond my control, I have been forced to concentrate on the things I know I can control and marketing is one of those areas. Some lessons learned: 

Five things not to do in tough times:
1. Panic.
2. Go off the radar.
3. Compromise on service and quality and the perception of the brand when cutting spending.
4. Lose faith.
5. Lose focus. 

Five things to do in tough times:
1. Evaluate the strategy and course-correct to fit the times.
2. Keep the brand visible through low-cost advertising, promotions, and PR.
3. Take care of your best customers and engage them in a dialogue about what marketing/promotions work for them to continue to support the business.
4. Use your employees as ambassadors to spread goodwill about the business and generate word-of-mouth.
5. Use the slow periods to reflect and brainstorm new ideas when the crazy, busy times prevented you from devoting the time and energy.

There are many things you can do to keep your business visible without going broke in the process. If you have something that you're doing that's working, please share it.

Cross-posted on The Business of Being Monique

Monique Hayward is living the busy life of a late-30s corporate player and entrepreneur in Beaverton, Oregon. Owner of Dessert Noir Cafe & Bar. Nearly 15 years of experience in marketing, communications, public relations, business development, and entrepreneurship. Emerging author and speaker with first book set for release in early 2009.

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