Learning from Sandy
While there's no one-size-fits-all solution, marketers can learn from the mistakes made following Superstorm Sandy by preparing for crises and developing a plan for customer outreach.
"There are ways of addressing a tragic or hot button issue without exploiting it," Kara Trivunovic, vice president of marketing services for StrongMail, wrote in a post for Forbes. "If there is any potential to offend customers or damage brand reputation with a particular campaign, it should likely be avoided. If you recognize its possible offensiveness, so will customers," she says.
Trivunovic also urges companies to identify the risks versus the rewards of addressing the issue. There may be potential for high visibility, but that also often means a risk of a "high-profile flameout."
"Going viral should not be the end goal of your campaign," she adds. "The circumstances that make content viral align in ways that are too complex to bank on. Being edgy doesn't always sell. It might attract attention, but how much of that attention is from potential customers, and how much is just rubbernecking?"
Despite the fine line between timely outreach and marketing ploy, many companies shone in the aftermath of Sandy, and set the precedent for creating marketing magic in difficult times.
New York's Kennedy International Airport-based Jetblue Airways stepped up after Sandy and told customers with travel affected by the storm that it would be "waiving change and cancellation fees for those rebooking through November 14 [two weeks after the storm hit]." Dave Canty, director of loyalty marketing and partnerships for the airline, also sent an email in which he offered thoughts and prayers to those affected by Sandy, and commended customers for donating to JetBlueGives.org, a fund set up with the American Red Cross to help Sandy victims.
American Express, also based in New York, was among the first companies to let its customers know that it was there to provide support, assistance, and access post-Sandy. From providing medical referrals to helping card members track down available lodging, American Express promised to help its customers 24 hours a day. The company listed all of its available resources on a Web page titled "Urgent Notice from American Express: Hurricane Sandy" and invited customers to call the customer service hotline, tweet the company, and use its secure messaging center. In the days following the storm, American Express also announced that it would rebate the merchant discount rate for charitable contributions for hurricane relief that card members made directly to several nonprofit organizations using their American Express cards.
One of the most memorable outreach efforts, however, wasn't as much a marketing tactic as it was a good deed that packed a major marketing punch.
In 2010, long before Sandy made the East Coast her target, battery brand Duracell unveiled its Power Forward Community Center, a mobile relief center for victims of natural disasters. Then, about two years later, in early 2012, the brand introduced its Rapid Responder four-by-four truck. Both are equipped with charging stations for cell phones and offer computers with Internet access to allow people affected by natural disasters to use their email and social media accounts.
After Sandy, Duracell's Power Forward Community Center set up camp in New York City's Battery Park, and the company's Rapid Responder truck traveled the streets of New York and New Jersey, providing charge stations, Internet access, and free batteries of all kinds.
"We were sending the power-relief center to Lower Manhattan because it was a high concentration of people and one of the hardest hit. But there were some areas in New York and New Jersey that couldn't be reached with that," Duracell spokesman Win Sakdinan says, "and the Rapid Responder is more agile because it's just a four-by-four."
Customers, Duracell quickly learned, couldn't be more grateful. Duracell's post about its relief center in Lower Manhattan drew more than 1,300 likes from the brand's 1.8 million Facebook fans in just two hours. "This is what the brand is about--empowering people through devices, connecting their families," Sakdinan says.
"In the aftermath of a local natural disaster, telecommunication providers--as well as brands that enable telecommunication--have a responsibility to connect customers with loved ones," Enlighten's Wegert says. When a catastrophe takes place overseas," she adds, "this responsibility is even more pressing, since family members living far away can be even more difficult to reach."
Beer giant Anheuser-Busch did its part as well, temporarily switching from canning beer to canning water in their facilities.
During Sandy, about 44,000 cases of water, instead of brew, were delivered to the New York/New Jersey area and distributed free of charge. "Personally, for me, it did mean a little bit more because I did have family affected by it," Anheuser-Busch plant manager Scott Vail says.
The company has been converting beer lines to water lines for disaster relief dating back to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Since 1988, the company has donated 71 million cans of water, and has already stepped up once again since Sandy. This past September, Anheuser-Busch provided 2,156 cases of emergency drinking water--or 51,744 cans--to the American Red Cross for its flood relief efforts in Colorado.
"Relief workers and people in the community were in need of drinking water as they worked to recover from the flooding, and this was one way Anheuser-Busch helped our friends and neighbors," Peter Kraemer, vice president of supply and head brewmaster for Anheuser-Busch, says.