• January 1, 2014
  • By David Myron, Editorial Director, CRM and Speech Technology magazines and SmartCustomerService.com

Is Marketing After a Disaster Exploitative?

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As I write this column, the northeastern region of the United States is bracing for another nor'easter. These storms are common, but after October 29, 2012, it's hard for me to even say the word storm without thinking about Superstorm Sandy.

Sandy had a significant impact on my family and our community. Our home, like so many others, sustained significant damage from the rising floodwaters. The damage was so severe that even now--more than a year after the storm--five families on our block still haven't returned home. At least one of the houses was condemned and taken down only a week before I sat down to write this column. The others remain tattered and neglected structures, some of which are slowly being covered by their once manicured landscaping.

While the storm was hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the reality is that marketers worldwide will likely have to address a significant crisis, either affecting their company or their customers, at least a couple of times throughout their career. The recent devastation in the Philippines, caused by Supertyphoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms on record, is further proof of this. (Of course, our thoughts go out to those affected by this horrific and deadly storm. If you are able to make a donation to the victims, please do so, as their needs will be great for a long time. 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], as animals are often the forgotten victims.)

Some might suggest that marketing to people who have suffered a great loss is taboo. Naysayers could justifiably argue that it's self-serving, inconsiderate of the victims, and even insensitive. If you're not careful, it's certainly possible that it could be all of these things, but it doesn't have to be.

Organizations that can provide valuable help to those in need should. Customers and prospects will appreciate it immensely. Even though it's been more than a year, I still recall hearing radio ads that effectively communicated helpful messages shortly after the storm. Allstate's comforting message delivered by Dennis Haysbert (an actor in the TV series The Unit and 24 and the movie Major League) left me with a positive impression of the company. I was already familiar with several of Haysbert's Allstate ads on television. His deep and authoritative voice is reassuring--perfect for these ads. Even though I wasn't an Allstate customer, it felt good to hear a familiar and comforting voice recognize our difficult situation. The ad conveyed that Allstate understood what we were going through and was ready to help.

But even though Allstate's radio ad was responsive and tactful, the company blundered when it aired a video ad featuring a Staten Island home destroyed by Sandy. Allstate featured the home without getting approval from the homeowners, who later threatened a lawsuit against the company. The ad was subsequently pulled.

Clearly, there's a lot to consider when marketing to customers and prospects after disaster strikes. And, even the best companies can make mistakes, which is why we offer our cover story, "Marketing in the Wake of a Disaster," by Associate Editor Maria Minsker. It offers valuable tips on how marketers can deliver the right message during difficult times.

So, in answer to the question in this column's headline, marketing can be exploitative and harmful to your brand if you're not careful. However, according to one source in the feature story, if done correctly, it could "gain the type of loyalty traditional marketing can't earn."

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