[Editor's note: This feature was written before Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines in November. Our thoughts go out to the thousands of people and animals affected by this devastating natural disaster. In a storm of this magnitude, many victims will have long-term needs during their recovery efforts. To help them, you can make a donation to the American Red Cross (www.redcross.org), the Philippine Red Cross (www.redcross.org.ph), or the World Society for the Protection of Animals (www.wspa-international.org).]
One of the greatest challenges brand marketers face is striking a balance between consistently promoting their brand message and being human--ensuring that advertisements, emails, tweets, and other content are not insensitive to customers in times of need. Brands, especially those with a large national customer base, have a responsibility to continue communicating with customers through difficult times, according to experts.
"Companies that have access to [products] or content deemed valuable by consumers should use it to help them at times of need," says Tessa Wegert, interactive media strategist at Enlighten, a digital marketing strategy and services agency. She adds that big consumer brands with a lot of "muscle" should take advantage of their national recognition to connect with customers and offer help. "Not only are big brands in a position to educate consumers, but their national reach ensures that important messages will be heard," Wegert says.
When Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in October 2012, brands quickly began outreach campaigns, seeking to connect with affected customers in relevant ways. But despite their efforts, many missed the mark.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm that initially left 8 million Americans without power, some brands monopolized on the disaster by tweeting and emailing customers with limited-time shopping discounts and online offers--many including insensitive puns and hashtags.
Shoppers were outraged when retailer American Apparel emailed customers about a Superstorm Sandy-inspired 20 percent off sale. Online shoppers who were "bored during the storm" were prompted to shop on American Apparel's Web site and type "SANDYSALE" in the online checkout. The company didn't apologize for this insensitivity.
Urban Outfitters made a similar mistake, tweeting and emailing customers the same message: "This storm blows (but free shipping on all orders doesn't)." The company also included the hashtag "ALLSOGGY" in its tweet.
In the days following the storm, some brands even took advantage of the gas shortage by raising prices. A Gulf station in Clifton, NJ, allegedly raised the price of regular gas from $3.49 per gallon to $4.69 per gallon, while a Lukoil station in Newark, NJ, raised the price of regular gas from a prestorm $3.60 per gallon to $4.50. With many storm-affected residents relying on gas-powered generators, the increases were unconscionable.
At a Howard Johnson Express in Parsippany, NJ, room rates increased by 32 percent following the storm, to $119 per night, making it more difficult for people who lost their homes or were displaced to afford temporary shelter. The price increase allegedly violated New Jersey state law, which prohibits excessive price increases during a declared state of emergency and for 30 days after the termination of the state of emergency.
Brands that want to monetize on disasters all have something in common, says Ira Kalb, president of Kalb & Associates, an international consulting and training firm, and professor of marketing at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.
"They all represent inside-out thinking. The spokespeople and CEOs of the companies are thinking about themselves and forgetting about the victims and their target audience in the areas most affected by the storm," he says. People lost their homes, cars, and property, and using the storm as a way to generate business is insensitive, Kalb asserts. "Companies exist and prosper because they satisfy the needs of their customers. If they take care of their customers, the money will follow. If they chase after the money, they will end up losing the customers and their money," he adds. "Most important of all, actions that are viewed as exploitative and insensitive will cause many to no longer trust the company."
Instead of making light of the storm with insensitive tweets and emails, companies should have embraced an outside-in approach. They could have started with a statement about their concern for the victims, Kalb recommends retrospectively, or offered the same discounts with the promise of donating a portion of their profits to relief efforts.