Navigating Economic Downturns: Embracing Virtual CMOs

Discover why businesses are turning to virtual chief marketing officers (VCMOs) to provide marketing support & leadership during economic downturns.

Paul Mills
12 Sep
September 12, 2023
 min video
12 Sep

In the ever-evolving landscape of business, economic downturns can strike at any time, placing immense pressure on owner-managers to make challenging decisions. Recent findings from Natwest’s Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) Reports reveal that businesses in the South West have experienced the most significant decline in new work since last November, as trading conditions worsen.

According to the bank's South West PMI Business Activity Index, which measures the month-to-month fluctuations in the combined output of the region's manufacturing and service sectors, August marked the third consecutive month of decline. Furthermore, the survey highlights that business activity has diminished across the entire United Kingdom. However, the South West has endured the sharpest decline in sales among all 12 regions monitored.

An image of the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol, UK

During these lean periods, the marketing function often emerges as the initial target for budget reductions. Here we explore the rationale behind this trend, outline the potential risks it poses to businesses, and introduce the concept of Virtual Chief Marketing Officers (VCMOs) as a cost-effective solution to maintain business continuity.

Marketing: The First Function to Face Cuts.

Economic downturns compel businesses to reevaluate their spending priorities, with marketing expenses often under intense scrutiny. Several factors render marketing particularly vulnerable during challenging economic periods:

1. Perceived Dispensability

During weaker economic times, there's a tendency to view marketing as an expendable cost rather than an essential investment. This perception arises because the benefits of marketing efforts, such as brand building and customer engagement, may not yield immediate or easily quantifiable returns. Business leaders may prioritise short-term profitability over longer-term brand and market positioning, leading to hasty decisions to cut marketing budgets.

2. Immediate Cost Reduction

In contrast to certain business functions like production or research and development, where cost-cutting measures may take time to implement or may not be as immediately visible, marketing expenses can be trimmed swiftly and visibly. Reducing marketing budgets can provide an immediate reduction in operational costs, which can be appealing to businesses looking for quick ways to lower their overhead.

3. Difficult Measurement

Measuring the return on marketing investments can be a complex and often long-term process. It can be challenging to quantify the direct impact of marketing activities in the short term. Decision-makers may find it difficult to justify marketing expenditures when they cannot readily see immediate, tangible results. This ambiguity can make marketing budgets appear less essential in the face of budgetary pressures.

4. Consumer Behaviour Shifts

Economic downturns frequently bring about changes in consumer behaviour. People may adjust their spending habits, preferences, and priorities, which can create uncertainty for businesses. Adapting marketing strategies to align with these shifting consumer behaviours can be a complex task. In this climate of uncertainty, businesses may feel hesitant to invest further in marketing, fearing that they may not effectively reach their evolving target audiences.

Risks of Cutting Marketing Budgets.

While cutting marketing budgets may seem like a logical step to reduce costs during an economic downturn, it comes with several risks that can negatively impact a business. Here are four common risks to mitigate:

1. Brand Erosion

Reduced marketing efforts can gradually erode a brand's visibility and awareness in the market. When a business reduces its presence in advertising and promotional activities, consumers may begin to forget about the brand or perceive it as less relevant. Brand erosion can undermine the value of the brand, making it less attractive to both existing and potential customers. A weakened brand can result in decreased market share and diminished customer loyalty.

2. Competitive Disadvantage

Businesses that continue to invest in marketing during an economic downturn may gain a competitive advantage over their peers who opt to cut their marketing budgets. These proactive businesses can maintain or even increase their visibility, market share, and customer engagement. When the economy eventually rebounds, companies that maintained their marketing efforts are well-positioned to capitalise on the recovery, while those that cut their budgets may find themselves playing catch-up.

3. Customer Attrition

Reduced marketing efforts can lead to a decline in customer engagement and retention. As a business reduces its promotional activities, it may lose touch with its customer base. Competitors who maintain their marketing efforts may take advantage of this opportunity to capture disengaged customers. Customers may switch allegiances when they perceive that a brand is no longer attentive or relevant to their needs.

4. Long-Term Impact

Drastic cuts to marketing can have lasting consequences. A business's reputation, built through years of marketing efforts, can be tarnished when it suddenly scales back its marketing presence. Rebuilding a damaged reputation and customer base can be a formidable and costly challenge. Long-term customers may be lost, and trust may need to be rebuilt, making it difficult to fully recover when economic conditions eventually improve.

While cutting marketing budgets may appear to be a prudent cost-saving measure during economic downturns, it carries substantial risks. Business leaders must carefully weigh these risks against short-term cost savings and consider alternative strategies that allow them to navigate economic challenges while maintaining a strong marketing presence.

"In times of economic turbulence, astute businesses turn to Virtual Chief Marketing Officers for agile strategies and cost-efficiency, ensuring they sail through storms and emerge stronger."

Paul Mills
CEO & Founder, VCMO

The Rise of Virtual Chief Marketing Officers (VCMOs).

In response to the challenges posed by economic downturns and the need for cost-effective marketing solutions, the fractional executive concept of Virtual Chief Marketing Officers (also known as Fractional CMOs) has gained prominence. A VCMO is an experienced marketing professional who works remotely on a part-time or project basis, providing strategic guidance and leadership to businesses without the overhead costs associated with a full-time executive. Here are four key reasons why VCMOs are gaining traction in the UK:

1. Cost Savings

VCMOs offer a compelling cost-effective alternative to hiring a full-time Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) or maintaining an in-house marketing team. This cost-saving advantage is especially crucial during economic downturns when businesses need to tighten their budgets. By engaging a VCMO, businesses can access top-tier marketing expertise without the financial burden of a full-time executive's hefty salary, benefits, and associated overhead costs.

2. Flexibility

One of the standout features of VCMOs is their flexibility. Businesses can engage VCMOs on a project-by-project basis or for specific durations, giving them the agility to scale their marketing efforts according to their evolving needs and financial situation. This flexibility is particularly valuable during uncertain economic times when businesses may not want to commit to long-term contracts or additional permanent staffing. Many VCMOs can deliver their services remotely, on-site, or a combination of both, giving businesses accessibility to a wider pool of marketing leadership and expertise.

3. Strategic Guidance

Virtual CMOs bring a wealth of experience and strategic acumen to the table. They have a track record of success in various industries and can offer a fresh perspective on a business's marketing challenges and opportunities. These experienced professionals can assess a business's unique circumstances, market dynamics, and competition, allowing them to develop tailored marketing strategies that align with the business's goals and adapt to changing market conditions.

4. Access to Networks

Virtual CMOs often come with extensive networks within the marketing industry. These networks can be a goldmine of valuable resources, partnerships, and opportunities that businesses can tap into to enhance their marketing efforts. Leveraging a VCMO's industry connections can provide businesses with a competitive edge and access to strategic alliances that may not have been otherwise available to them.

The emergence of Virtual Chief Marketing Officers is a response to the challenges posed by economic downturns, offering businesses a practical solution for cost-effective marketing. VCMOs bring cost savings, flexibility, strategic guidance, and access to valuable industry networks. These benefits empower businesses to maintain their marketing efforts even in challenging economic conditions, ensuring they remain competitive and poised for growth when economic conditions improve.

Core Benefits of a Virtual CMO.

The adoption of a Virtual Chief Marketing Officer offers several core benefits that can help businesses navigate economic downturns effectively:

  1. Expertise: Virtual CMOs are seasoned professionals with a proven track record of success in various industries. Their extensive expertise in marketing allows them to offer valuable insights, strategies, and guidance to businesses. During economic downturns, having a VCMO on board can be particularly advantageous. They possess the knowledge and experience to navigate challenging market conditions, ensuring that marketing efforts remain focused and effective.
  2. Cost-Efficiency: One of the standout advantages of Virtual CMOs is their cost-efficiency. By outsourcing the role of a Chief Marketing Officer, businesses can make significant reductions in their marketing expenses. This cost savings is especially crucial during economic downturns when businesses need to tighten their belts. It allows them to access high-level strategic direction without the financial burden of a full-time CMO's salary and benefits.
  3. Immediate Impact: VCMOs are known for their ability to quickly assess a business's marketing needs and implement strategies to address them. This agility and responsiveness provide a rapid response to changing market conditions. During economic uncertainty, the ability to make swift adjustments to marketing strategies can be a critical asset. VCMOs can help businesses pivot and adapt to evolving consumer behaviours and market dynamics in a timely manner.
  4. Adaptability: VCMOs bring a wealth of experience from working with a diverse range of businesses and industries. This adaptability is a key strength, particularly during economic downturns when consumer behaviours can shift rapidly and unpredictably. VCMOs are skilled at tailoring marketing strategies to align with these shifting behaviours, ensuring that businesses remain relevant and responsive to the changing needs and preferences of their target audiences.


In times of economic downturns, owner-managers face the challenging task of making budget cuts while maintaining business continuity. Marketing, often considered an expendable cost, is frequently the first to face reductions. However, this approach carries significant risks, including brand erosion, competitive disadvantage, and long-term damage to customer relationships.

To address these challenges, businesses are increasingly turning to Virtual Chief Marketing Officers (VCMOs) as a cost-effective alternative. VCMOs offer strategic expertise, flexibility, and immediate impact, helping businesses navigate economic downturns with agility and resilience. By embracing the concept of Virtual CMOs, owner-managers can ensure that their marketing efforts remain effective even in the most challenging economic conditions, ultimately contributing to the long-term success and sustainability of their businesses.

About VCMO

VCMO helps SMEs and investor-backed portfolio companies with a £2 million or higher turnover that operate without a full-time Chief Marketing Officer. Our Fractional CMOs and tailored services transform marketing potential into a competitive advantage that delivers scalable and predictable growth, increased profits, and enhanced enterprise value.

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Paul Mills
CEO & Founder

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