Recession. A time to focus on costs, right? A time to steer clear of the risky idea of innovation and zero in on the parts of the business you can trust?

Try telling Premier Foods and Unilever. Last week, the food giants, home to brands from Bisto and Branston to Becel and Ben and Jerry's, demonstrated, rightly, that they are willing to invest, even when times are tight.

On Wednesday (5 August), Premier boss Robert Schofield (pictured) outlined plans for the company's "most prolific" marketing programme ever, with the UK food group set to up its advertising spend by 12% in a bid to grab market share.

A day later, Unilever chief Paul Polman cited his own company's increased spending on advertising - as well as its innovation programme - for a recovery in sales volumes.

Unilever's move to slash prices on some product lines helped boost volumes and Polman did acknowledge that the company would focus on "fewer and bigger" innovation projects in the months ahead.

However, while a modicum of caution is wise, investing in brands and innovation now could allow the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate - and others willing to take some calculated risks - to steal a march on the competition ahead of when the economy recovers.

Even during recession, brand-owners need to ensure consumer awareness of their products remains high. The last few months have seen dramatic changes to the way consumers shop; the downturn has made consumers more promiscuous and a hell of a lot more savvy. And those changes are likely to stick when the recovery comes.

The recession, then, is a time when brand-owners, far from gazing at their navels, need to be shouting about their products. There has been a lot of talk about the popularity of private label in recent months but there are signs that growth may be slowing - and the bigger brands could use their scale and marketing clout to take advantage. And, with media rates currently low, brand-owners can even get more bang for their buck.

Moreover, with shoppers continuing to shun eating out for staying in, the current economic climate marks a significant opportunity for brand-owners to get in front of consumers and encourage them to buy their wares.

However, while there are opportunities for the bigger brand-owners, the outlook could be less rosy for smaller brands, without the marketing muscle to attract consumers. Nonetheless, those niche brands that can present a clear difference to others in a category, perhaps in terms of indulgence, can still thrive; they just need to be cuter in how they market themselves.

This week, the biggest of them all, Nestle, reports on its half-year numbers. The Swiss food behemoth has worked hard to convince consumers that it can offer value; in recent months, the group has expanded its range of "popularly positioned products" (or PPP, as Nestle dubs the portfolio) to entice those seeking value. Sales of the PPP lines have jumped, helping Nestle stay relatively resilient to the recession; now all eyes will be on whether Nestle CEO Paul Bulcke is bold enough to back his big brands.