OPINION: Focusing on the daily grind won't beat a downturn

That confidence among senior UK marketers has hit rock bottom will come as no surprise to any company struggling to make sense of a climate characterised by deep feelings of uncertainty and unease.

The Chartered Institute of Marketing's latest Marketing Trends survey, released last week, showed that the confidence index that measures marketers' confidence in their ability to meet sales targets has slumped to 82.5, down from 98.5, during the past winter.

Perhaps more tellingly, priorities have changed in just a few months.

Whereas until recently key concerns included boosting margins and improving product specifications - a key part of better branding, if you like - improving existing customer loyalty and income generation are what matters now to almost two-thirds of those questioned.

There's nothing surprising about dealing with depressing sales figures by becoming obsessed with squeezing more from what you already have. And focusing on winning more business from existing customers is what any sensible company should be doing.

The fact is, however, that this feels more like another swing of the pendulum toward the short term than a concerted effort to building better customer relationships.

The high-tech sector provides a timely reminder of what happens when you chase short-term sales at the expense of brand-building. Under siege because of the slashing of IT budgets in businesses across the board, IT companies still don't seem to have learned the lesson that brands matter as much as the stuff they are flogging.

This is the reading, anyway, of a survey of 350 senior marketing executives from the CMO Council, a collection of senior marketers, whose 60-odd members include most of the well-known names in the industry, including Cisco, Hitachi, Dell, Microsoft, Xerox and Yahoo!

The good news is that despite serious reductions and realignments of marketing departments last year, the respondents said that belt-tightening has increased their organisational effectiveness and that the marketing function has retained its influence and value in most parts of the company - except, predictably, finance.

But the bad news is that a majority list lead generation, PR reach and sales closed as their three most important performance measures. Branding is much lower down. This inability to understand branding is why so many high-tech companies have suffered disproportionately over the past year.

Ironically, the marketers in the survey rate IBM, Microsoft and Dell as the companies that made the biggest marketing impact in 2002. And how did they do it? By realising the importance of their brands. While that happens to include spending millions on ads, that's only part of it. It's about understanding what really creates sustainable brand value over time.

A study by consultants Accenture has found that companies surviving the recession of the early-90s most effectively did more than tighten financial purse strings. They used the downturn to refine their strategies according to what was important to customers, what was essential for delivering value and what distinguished them from their rivals. By looking beyond the daily grind, they came out of the slump in measurably strong shape.

It's a reminder that, however tough the times, chasing your own tail is never going to be a viable marketing strategy.

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