disaster marketing

Marketers often try to tap what’s happening in the news. The reasoning is that if they can take over water cooler conversations, their brand message will travel that much faster.

Yet many brands misfired last week during Hurricane Sandy. In an attempt to capitalize on the storm news, they outraged consumers with self-serving and insensitive promotions.

Gap used the #Sandy Twitter hashtag to promote shopping on Gap.com and asked customers to check in on its “Frankenstorm Apolocalypse – Hurricane Sandy” Foursquare. American Apparel targeted customers in the nine stricken states who were “bored” at home. Here’s a collection of The 9 Biggest Brand Fails Exploiting Hurricane Sandy, including Urban Outfitters and Jonathan Adler.

Yet other brands rose to the occasion. Duracell and Tide (both P&G brands) found ways to help those in need, generating a tremendous amount of goodwill while doing a good thing. Duracell sent charging stations to Lower Manhattan to charge people’s mobile phones and devices. Tide provided free laundry services on a mobile truck equipped with 32 washers and dryers.

The difference in these two approaches comes down to brand purpose. Many brands don’t have a clear understanding of “why” they exist in consumers’ lives. The American Apparel CEO unapologetically justified their self-serving Sandy Sale by saying “what you want to do in these events is keep the wheels of commerce going”.

Duracell and Tide, in contrast, found ways to deepen the impact they make on consumers’ lives. “Tide has learned that the little things – like clean clothes – can make a big difference to those who have lost the comforts of home.”

How brands act during a disaster like Hurricane Sandy is a litmus test for meaningful brands. Brands with a purpose stand for more than just a 20% off promotion or free shipping. They stand for their consumers.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away one signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. I’ll pick one comment. Thanks!)

  1. Giovanna Blackston says

    I agree with you but I wonder how much damage has actually been done by these opportunistic brands. Since branding has evolved into a discipline of actions and not words, New Yorkers without power and clean laundry will remember Tide and Duracell for a long time to come. The others will not even make it on to their radar, much less stay on it.

  2. Sharon Barraclough says

    How true!
    The whole reason for being of a brand is to add value over and above any other similar product or service, to have a set of values that consumers understand and associate with.
    By ‘adding value’ to consumers lives in a time of need Tide and Duracell have created an amazing brand experience that will be remembered for a long time to come. Well done to them and shame on the other guys who could not engage their consumer brains before their commercial ones!

  3. Ori Pomerantz says

    Capitalistic humility is the virtue of thinking about what your customers want, rather than what you want.

    If you can provide some real help, like Duracell and Tide did, that is the best. If your brand is mostly irrelevant (like Dell), you can at least donate x% of revenue to disaster relief. That is more likely to be remembered than a discount.

  4. Ellen says

    Interesting piece! A lot of restaurants & bars jumped on the #OpenIn[City] as well and it seemed to be a straight up positive for staff and regulars alike. We had 3 Pubs that were able to get the message out to regulars and staff in real time in DC, MD and Philly. Luckily in our communities the worst we saw was power outages, so a hot meal, a pint of beer & wifi was all that was needed. Cheers

  5. Bill Carlson says

    In an event like this, I don’t think it is, or should be, about brands standing for their customers. It’s about doing the right things for people in need.

    No question that some actions are better PR than others — and some actions, in the moment, absolutely seem crass.

    Forgive a cynical perspective, however — short attention spans these days means all will be forgotten quickly, both good AND bad…

  6. Sarah says

    I totally agree, clothing brands such as GAP missed a great opportunity to help out victims with warm clothing etc but they have a stock formulaic approach to “news events” and it’s all about increasing their sales, not helping their consumers. Some brands still haven’t realized that having a relationship with their consumer means more than just having their email in their database!

  7. DB Wienke says

    Brand management is much more in our dynamic environment than the classic application learned in B school. Kudos to Tide and Duracell for recognizing the significance of being on top of their “brand” management relative to current events.

  8. DSprogis says

    Great piece Tom!

    Companies are not alone in their miss-guided outreach – politicians seem to be as miss-guided during this current political storm.

    I was home with my son last week as a result of the storm and we received no less than 8 political phone calls from Obama, Romney, Warren, Brown and candidates for town council. Not only are their automated pre-recorded calls impersonal and unwelcome, but I can’t believe a single vote will turn on a pre-recorded phone call. Said another way – they can’t possibly be effective.

    If politicians don’t have the good sense to knock it off, I would like to see politicians added to the DO NOT CALL list.

  9. Jeannie Chan says

    Well, I’m actually not as offended by these ads as some others. But, I was also very fortunate in the fact that I didn’t lose my home, power or heat, due to Sandy.

    But bad taste aside, the root of this PR disaster is simply because the marketers forgot everything they learned in their marketing classes. Forget that they could donate. Forget that they could actually do things to help. This is simply bad marketing, regardless of what charity efforts they could have done.

    They’re essentially promoting $-off promotions, in their own ways. $-off promotions are never brand enhancing. They always devalue a brand. $-off discounts are always opportunistic in nature, and it’s just more obvious when you do it during a disaster. It’s really that simple of a case study.

    I have nothing against keeping the wheel of commerce moving. Revitalizing the economy is always one of the top priorities in disaster recovery. New Yorkers have very active dining out campaigns right now to support restaurants that lost days of business. But as marketers, you have to take a step back and think seriously what are you offering to your consumers. (And if you really think about it, how valuable free shipping can be when the basic infrastructure of transport and shipping has been entirely compromised. And I, for one, was not thinking about shopping online since god knows when my shipment will arrive or more likely it’ll just get lost in the shipping chaos.) There are other, and better ways, to motivate shopping. They could have asked people to buy clothes to donate. It’s freezing weather in New York while many are still without heat or shelter. L’Occitane put up Halloween events in their NYC stores for kids who have been completely cooped up at home for days, with no real safe environments for trick-or-treating. Not everyone has a laundry truck or battery truck waiting to be deployed. But if marketers would just stop and think for a moment, none of this PR disaster would have happened. Because I’m sure everyone have something unique to offer that will enhance the customers’ lives while enhancing the brand. And I’d go out on a limb to say that the answer is never a $-off discount.

    (My thoughts are with those who are still recovering from the storm. Many are still without power. Many more are without heat, and many lost their homes, with a snowstorm on its way. Financial contributions to reputable organizations is the best way to help from afar.)

  10. facebook_concettaphillipps says

    I’ve kept the page to this article open for awhile and have been pondering it.

    Yes, I think some companies made some bone-headed marketing moves. There’s always going to be some.

    When I think about this, though, it irritates me that the American Apparel CEO assumes the only way to get sales in the door is to do a crass discount promotion. As opposed to say, companies like BaubleBar, WEBS Yarn, Barneys New York, Penfield, Ross, Dannijo, and Gilt City that are all ponying up at least a portion of sales to raise money for Red Cross and other local New York charities. And amongst my friends….I can tell you who got our money, and it wasn’t the Gap or Americal Apparel.

    And that’s not to mention all the other “wheels of commerce” that are happening individually – many fashion designers and craftspeople on smaller sites such as Ravelry.com and Etsy are donating 10%-100% of their sales to the relief efforts.

    There’s always going to be stupid people marketing and smart people at the same time. I’m glad that there are more smart folks than stupid ones.

  11. says

    Hi all,

    Great commentary this week! I appreciated all of your perspective. This week’s print goes to Jeannie Chan for the important reminder that everyone has “something unique to offer that will enhance the customers’ lives while enhancing the brand” and that the answer is “never a $-off discount”.



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