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Benefiting From Disasters

It seems like we’re caught in an endless sequence of natural disasters, and while it’s a delicate matter to be considering how one or more might influence brands, experience shows that brands can suffer from being seen to do too little just as much as running the risk of doing the wrong thing. Strong positives are possible. Cities, for sure, have given their brands a new shine by portraying themselves as starting afresh, making deep improvements in terms of sustainability, for example, like New York after Hurricane Sandy and New Orleans after Katrina. But what about brands overall?

Certainly, you don’t want to be guilty of the gasp-worthy mis-steps made during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 by brands such as American Apparel, Jonathan Adler, Urban Outfitters and even Sotheby’s. Neither do you want to be seen to do nothing, or too little, like Marriott hotels, who sent a rescue ship to St. Thomas, but left non-customers behind. Even the cast-iron brand of The Red Cross can get lambasted for its relief efforts.

For business brands, it’s tricky to get it right when the nation is in the grip of tragic loss rather than voracious consumerism. Straightforward donations seem to work well, as Lands’ End demonstrated. Another good strategy is to cut distressed customers a break—like AT&T and Verizon did by waiving text and data overuse charges, and Tesla, who boosted their cars’ battery life for free, during the week of Irma. Or you could take a lead from Walmart, which was widely praised for its response to Hurricane Katrina by rehiring displaced staff and delivering relief supplies ahead of governmental agencies. That’s in stark contrast to others who didn’t think to turn off their fancy, automated price-surge systems, including several airlines that got slammed for hiking their fares out of Florida during the mad dash to leave.

All in all, there’s the constant danger of getting hit by a PR tornado if there’s a mere hint of opportunism, so the best strategy is for brands to figure out how to help, first, and reap the brand reputation benefits later.


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