Brand Lessons From FDR

As marketers struggle with this recessionary economy, history might be able to provide a lesson or two in terms of how to survive and create opportunities for growth. Our president-elect purportedly is looking back at history, including Franklin D. Roosevelt’s management of the Great Depression, for inspiration to deliver on his winning “change” proposition. And while FDR might have a few lessons for Obama, I also think there are some strong reasons why your brand should take a look at our 34th president for tips.

The current economic crisis with its near collapse of the financial markets and consumer sentiment is the type of perfect storm that comes once every century or so, making it normal for us to look back at the handling of the Great Depression for guidance. That watershed moment in our nation’s history also witnessed a near collapse of our economic system as well as the public’s trust, allowing FDR to motivate the country around his winning 1932 campaign proposition of a “New Deal.”

What made the New Deal unique and noteworthy was the acknowledgment that the tough circumstances facing the country required a drastic reassessment of how things were done, primarily through stronger government intervention. And while the New Deal’s basic tenets provide eternal fodder for the rich and heated debate around our government’s role in the economy, its lasting impact is with us today.

I propose that, despite the economic and political interpretations of the program and its merits, we look at the key lesson of FDR’s government reengineering to address what is undoubtedly a new day in consumer perception and, hence, in marketing.  

The following are four key lessons of FDR’s New Deal, along with applications for today’s marketers:

1. An urgent call to action. Roosevelt himself called his initiative to cure the ills of the economy “more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.” And while a bellicose metaphor might seem extreme for brands, a sense of urgency should be raised in corporations. Marketers, with our proximity to consumer opinion and sentiment, should be driving a program to understand the historic shift in consumer sentiment. Much like Roosevelt’s “First 100 Days,” we should all have a plan for the next three months, as well as a more long-term assessment of how this shift affects our category and consumers.

2. Structural reengineering. A salient aspect of the New Deal was the creation of new programs to address specific challenges and the population’s concerns. The imperative for branding restructuring should begin by assessing your brand’s readiness and capacity to gauge consumer feedback. This is a critical time to invest in research to not only understand how they are feeling, but also to gauge which are the most effective ways of reaching them.

3. Inspired leadership and compassion. One of the reasons for the New Deal’s lasting legacy was its principled focus on the well-being of individual and communities. A lesson for brands is that they must demonstrate caring during these difficult times, as well as a steadfast commitment to your values. This is also a ripe time to assess your public affairs initiatives and to test cause-marketing programs.

4. Invest and stimulate your brand. While FDR was aware of the need for fiscal responsibility, the New Deal also demonstrated the benefits of stimulating the economy through public works. The lesson for brands here is a bit different, and more analogous to the traditional business thinking of “you have to spend to make money.” The Great Depression and other recessions allowed winning brands like Procter & Gamble to increase their market share due to continued marketing commitment while their competitors retreated. The key is to do this smartly, by focusing the additional spend on research, value-centric messaging and leadership programs.