01/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Honda Shows Advertisers The Way

Despite the economic doldrums, companies still need to advertise. No matter how bad things are, they must compete for how, where and how much consumption occurs. That means marketing. Unfortunately, most consumer advertisers are still communicating that we should party like it's 2007. Today, watching such an ad not only discourages spending, it promotes depression.

I had actually begun to despair that this was a universal condition. Brands that had grown fat off the landscape over the past 15 years simply could not seem to adapt to the blackness all around us. That feeling changed over the past few days, courtesy of Honda. On Friday, it pulled out of Formula One racing, on which it spent $217 million in 2008. This was brilliant, and not just because of the cost savings. The genius of this decision is the gesture: it allows Honda to show solidarity with its customers worldwide. While we feel pain, it will not ask to subsidize its corporate vanity in the form of a racing team. Simultaneously, I noticed that Honda is running an ad in which a father and son use their vehicle to drop off food at a homeless shelter. The spot is sober. The subject is serious. The message conveyed is that Honda is an excellent choice for those needing dependable transportation in a difficult times. Bulls eye.

Taken together, these two acts of marketing demonstrate that Honda understands the current economic reality and is prepared to talk to us from that vantage. If conspicuous consumption is out, then so is Formula One racing; if recognition of hard realities is unavoidable, then Honda should be a vehicle for such an age. Fortunately, these are messages that draw upon the company's heritage and are reflected in its products, but its the total package of product, brand and marketing that makes the message resonate. In fact, I would be willing to wager that Honda does very well vis-a-vis the competition in the coming year.

Now, other national marketers need to follow Honda's lead. For different industries this will dictate different strategies, but all should spring from an understanding that public mood has changed radically. Banking, for example, should disappear from the airwaves for a time. We're angry at you and don't want you wasting taxpayer bail-out money on trying to give us another snow job. Go to your proverbial room and come back in next spring with a message of contrition. Luxury companies, by contrast, are going to have to provide lower cost alternatives and retrain us as to when and how to splurge. Self-indulgence is out; gifting, I suspect, is in. Even companies that have quality at their roots should use this as an opportunity to reinforce their heritage. L.L. Bean should, for example, stop trying to displace the Gap and get back to telling us about its simple, quality clothes and sporting goods. They get the job done, last a long time and are reasonably priced. Enough said.

Sadly, many consumer marketers are already too far gone. Those who are owe a debt of gratitude to Honda for showing us the way.