Written by Dan Bowers, Chief Strategy Officer
Illustration by Tom Gillanders, Designer

If your budget is getting reduced but you still need to pull a rabbit out the hat, tackle the messy middle.

When it comes to what brands can do to survive and thrive in times of recession, we’ve all heard the same advice. “Spend through it”, “spend bigger” time and time again. Despite this, it’s very tempting for CFOs to reduce marketing budgets as a way to cut costs in tough times, but there’s mountains of evidence to support spending on brand. In fact, recessions can be the most cost-effective time to invest for long-term returns. 

This isn’t one of those articles though. 

Not because I think any of that advice is wrong – it isn’t – I just think it’s become a lazy answer. We need to say more during difficult periods than “keep spending” or “spend bigger”, because the harsh reality is that it’s not a particularly practical or helpful suggestion, no matter how much empirical evidence there is. 

Consumer confidence is low and the cost of living crisis still at the forefront of people's mind. There’s simply less money to go around. When you add that businesses should be at least aiming to maintain their employee’s wages in real terms, expecting marketeers to have the budgets to invest their way out is optimistic at best. 

So, the question becomes where can we find gains, despite budget pains? It’s quite simple: if spending big is not an option, marketeers need to be very smart in how they spend. They need a way to drive brand performance with even more accountability and cost-effectiveness. I believe brands can do this by starting in the middle, right at the heart of the funnel.  

Starting in the middle 

We’re long past the time when a brand is built purely by a 30-second TV spot, and you no longer need to be bigger to be better. Huge inroads can be made if you’re able to properly tackle the 'messy middle', and deal with the complexity of the increasingly fragmented, multi-touchpoint journey lead to consumers’ final purchase decisions. Here, you can spend smarter, not just bigger, to really make a difference during times of trouble. 

Brands should prioritise the middle as the key battleground. It’s where a combination of decision drivers and barriers are at play, each one presenting an opportunity for brands to move up (or down) the pecking order. It’s where brand consideration can be earned and lost, and success depends on how deft your brand can be. 

It’s not easy though. There is a big chasm between awareness and purchase, and it requires real prowess to traverse this gap. Everything a brand does in the middle counts. Every interruption and interaction, every exposure and engagement, however fleeting, needs to create an emotional and persuasive connection that leads to a positive brand outcome. To do this well brands need what I call, drumroll please… mid-funnel magic!* 

Mid-Funnel Magic 

Mid-funnel magic is a special kind of creativity that seamlessly interacts with end-to-end connectivity. It requires a perfect combination of brand top-down thinking and bottom-up comms thinking. It’s a style of thinking that isn’t afraid of dealing with the many complications of the murky middle, whether that’s understanding human decision-making, digesting reams of data, or dealing with myriad channels, formats and tech platforms.  

Many brands continue to rely on a top-down creative approach, by creating a beautiful advert, and trying to shoehorn it everywhere elsewhere. Some swing too far the other way, relying heavily on performance activity for short-term gain. In both instances, true integration is little more than an afterthought. 

Brands are best served by creativity that's built from the middle out. This removes the binary choice between brand building and sales performance, by utilising ideas that can stretch up the funnel as effortlessly as they work down the funnel. Using this approach, marketeers aren’t forced to choose either/or, and they can drive brand performance when they need it most. 

I am not questioning the power of creativity here, and this certainly isn’t a love letter to pure performance marketing. As people are exposed to more and more advertising messages, unexpected creativity has always been at heart of effectiveness. It’s been widely reported that creativity delivers the largest profit multiplier, but not far behind is optimising other campaign elements.

Mid-funnel magic still starts with great ideas, but they’re not just ads, they’re ideas that connect across the whole funnel and can be adapted in any native digital or social space, big or small. There are so many ways to flex your optimisation muscles in the middle, so get stuck in! 

Magicians don’t usually reveal their secrets, but times are hard and we all know every incremental brand gain matters. Here’s three tricks that will spark some mid-funnel magic for your brand: 

1. Create ideas not ads: Integration should not be an afterthought, you need creativity that can work every everywhere. 

2. Embrace complexity: Top-down thinking alone won’t cut it, start at the bottom, collaborate with specialists and obsess over the touchpoint detail.  

3. Human understanding: The human brain is amazing. You need a scientific understanding to know how to influence decisions and inspire behaviours.