In the hours leading up to Hurricane Sandy, I get a lovely email from USAA, which sells me homeowner insurance. It tells me how to best equip my smartphone for the coming storm (set up a texting-tree) and offers advice on ’cane-proofing my casa. Less than an hour later, my domestic precautions are interrupted by a robo-call from Comcast, my cable provider, alerting me to the storm’s approach and warning me that I might lose service. So why does one company’s storm message seem comforting and genuine, and another’s rude?
“Cognitively, we experience brands as people,” Craig Bida, EVP of cause branding for Cone Communications, tells Marketing Daily. “One company was offering you help, and people can sniff out authenticity in these messages. Whether you’re a local business, or a multinational corporation, you want to be seen as a good neighbor, and not as exploiting the tragedy. The wrong message breeds resentment and criticism.”
The key thing is keeping relief efforts, however informal, in keeping with the brand, adds David Hessekiel, president of the Cause Marketing Forum and co-author of Good Works! He says he is impressed, for example, by tweets, Facebook posts and email from Barteca, which owns a small chain of restaurants in the Westchester and Connecticut area.
“I got a personalized email, saying its restaurants would open at noon, and that 'we will have working bathrooms, outlets available for charging, and free Wi-Fi for internet. Come on down if you need us.’”
“I have no idea if I’ll head down to the restaurant or not,” says Hessekiel, who is still without power. “But it certainly reinforces my view of that brand as an excellent neighborhood business.”
The key, he says, is that it clearly wasn’t exploitive. Ria Rueda, the chain’s director of marketing, says the email went out to roughly 1,000, as well as via Facebook and Twitter. “It was important to us that people know we didn’t expect them to buy food. We invited people to bring their own food, if they wanted.”)
Bida says, when possible, brands should look for tie-ins that are uniquely suited to their products and personality. For example, Procter & Gamble, where he used to work, routinely brings Duracell batteries and flashlights into disaster zones; its Tide brand uses mobile laundry services to help. And within hours of Sandy, United Airlines had offered matching donations, which customers could also make in the form of miles.
Both Bida and Hessekiel expect that while corporations will act quickly to raise funds for Sandy’s victims, the timing of the storm means those efforts will soon give way to holiday-related charitable efforts, which have been planned for months now.
“We’ll likely see an immediate burst of very authentic calls to action,” says Hessekiel. “But while this storm is awful, it’s not on the scale of a Hurricane Katrina or a tsunami. The cleanup will likely be much shorter term.”
And much of the effort will be local, adds Bida, pointing out that much of the social media chatter is already aimed at smaller efforts. “There’s a limit to how interested people in California will be in this,” he says. “But since Sandy’s worst deadly effects were in Haiti, fundraising will also have global reach. So there’s a chance for marketing touch points to be both very broad and very local.”