How can small businesses make the best of the slowdown in the economy while still growing and expanding their brands? Here are a few ideas:

1. Design and produce only marketing materials you'll really use. Print marketing materials will only ever help your business if they get out of your office and into your potential customers' hands (handing out business cards, mailing out postcards, or distributing brochures). Online marketing materials need you to publicize them (in the case of a website) or update them (in the case of a blog or custom Twitter page), or updating and distribute them (like an email newsletter). So, make sure that whatever you design, you'll actually do your part to help your materials reach escape velocity.

2. Test your designs in a low-budget way. Testing your designs with your target audience is more important now than ever. But, be smart with your marketing budget and do your testing early in the process, and in some easy to produce ways. Two of the easiest, least expensive ways to implement your designs (and even your marketing messages) and get testing are through designing a blog or an email newsletter. In both of these options, you can make good use of templates that are available, and add in a customized header graphic, and edit your color palette a bit. Then send it out to your customers, and ask them what they think about it. Their feedback will be invaluable.

3. Take advantage of the down time to really examine your brand and revise your marketing plan for the future. If you're like a lot of businesses, you've been running around like crazy doing business for the last while. Use the time to strategize, plan, and maybe even get a head start on some future marketing campaigns so that when things do pick up, you can be ready.

4. Use the time to get up to speed. If you've been avoiding blogging, email newsletters, Twitter or social networking because you haven't had the time to set them up or figure out how they work, now might be a good time to look into it. Now is a great time to catch up on your learning, and to really get these types of marketing efforts started so that when things start getting better, you'll have learned the technical side of things, and initiated a process for keeping up with these marketing methods into your business's marketing plan.