Commentary

The Worst Of Times, The Best Of Times: Brand Building, CSR And Disaster Response

As we head down the home stretch of the 2013 hurricane season (remember last year’s late-season surprise, Sandy?), and with California wildfires and Colorado flooding still impacting communities, there’s no better time than now for companies to assess their disaster response strategies.

Our recent research paints a clear picture of just how high consumers’ expectations are of companies when it comes to disaster: A full 87% of global consumers expect companies to play a meaningful role in disaster response. Nearly 70% think companies are more effective than governments in responding to disasters — based on their expertise, resources and ability to just get things done. 

Companies need to understand that, when it comes to disasters, consumers have set a remarkably high bar. They believe that companies — whether they make dog food or diapers, beer or buckets, clothes or coffee — can get communities back on track better than government agencies with their highly trained experts, deep experience and vast resources. How ready is your company to meet these borderline unrealistic expectations when your brand and reputation are on the line?

I like to think of disaster response as corporate social responsibility (CSR) in a pressure cooker. It’s a nerve-wracking combination of high stakes, high urgency and high visibility. Companies walk a tightrope of not doing enough, not acting fast enough, or perhaps most damaging from a reputation perspective — seeming to act from a profit motive vs. a pure, philanthropic desire. 

Done right, disaster response can create significant opportunities for brand building and meaningful stakeholder engagement. All companies should think carefully about how they can participate. A lucky few, whose products are in need when disaster strikes, can take things to the next level, tapping into the rich emotions that calamities trigger to make disaster response a core, defining aspect of both their CSR commitments and their brand. Think of Duracell’s Power Relief Program, which generates oceans of goodwill by bringing badly needed power to distressed communities, while at the same time driving home the brand’s core equities of trust and reliability. 

To meet consumer and other stakeholder expectations, here are five best practices companies should consider when developing disaster response programs: 

1. Go beyond your checkbook: Think about leveraging all of your resources (e.g., people, products, know-how) vs. just giving money. The age of checkbook philanthropy is over, with 89% of consumers believing that companies should not only give dollars, but should leverage their full range of unique assets. A great example: The Tide Loads of Hope program, which lets Tide do what it does best — clean people’s clothes — bringing dignity and a sense of normalcy back to disaster-distressed communities.  

2. Have a plan: As CSR continues to mainstream into a core business driver, companies must treat disaster response not as an episodic, last-minute scramble, but instead as a core part of a comprehensive CSR strategy. Of course, we can’t know every disaster that may happen. However, figuring out ahead of time your company’s disaster response focus areas, identifying your core competencies and deployable assets, and establishing meaningful relationships with nonprofit partners, will put you ahead of the game when disaster strikes — enabling you to deliver real impact while also building your company’s brand and reputation.  

3. Give stakeholders a job: During uncertain times people are looking for companies to step up and show strong leadership. A great way for companies to do this is by mobilizing and enabling stakeholders to participate. Take a lesson from JetBlue’s unique collaboration after Hurricane Sandy, when the NYC-based airline worked with the NYC Food Truck Association to mobilize money and employee volunteers to help food trucks deliver more than 20,000 meals in affected areas. Crowdfunding site Indiegogo also got in the mix, marshaling additional funds from donors to deliver even more meals.

4. Don’t give and run: Many companies have too short an attention span when it comes to disasters, quickly directing support towards communities, but then just as quickly moving on. Consumers are very clear that they expect more commitment: 87% believe companies should play a long-term role in rebuilding. This means companies need to be prepared to be involved for the long haul, offering essential support for reconstruction, and helping focus attention on communities’ long-term needs. An example: Crate & Barrel’s three-year, $1.5 million commitment with nonprofit Rebuilding Together to rebuild homes and lives of those affected by Hurricane Sandy.   

5. Tell your story: No company wants to appear exploitative during a disaster. But companies shouldn’t make the mistake of being overly modest either. When it comes to disaster relief, consumers are looking for signs of positive progress. When companies step up to aid communities, and work to get the word out about what they are doing, consumers are eager to recognize them for their commitment and generosity: A full 91% of people have a more favorable impression of a company after learning of its support of disaster recovery efforts. 

When it comes to disaster, one thing is abundantly clear: It’s not a question of “if” companies should get involved, but rather “how,” and “how much?” Companies must remember that when communities are impacted by disasters, people overwhelmingly expect companies to act — generously, efficiently and effectively. Disasters create a unique opportunity for companies to build their brands, fire up their employees and inspire their consumers, all while helping communities get back on their feet. It’s like turning lemons into lemonade. Now, what’s not to like about that?

1 comment about "The Worst Of Times, The Best Of Times: Brand Building, CSR And Disaster Response".
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  1. Steve Plunkett from Cool Websites Organization, September 30, 2013 at 10:43 a.m.

    Excellent insight.. however, hard part is to convince clients to preemptively budget for acts of God.

    Not impossible, just hard, best way is to plan for worst case and squirrel away small amounts of retainer for the immediate need to cover about a days worth of discovery to gather information for clients prior to deployment. =)

    Most seasonal content calendars don't contain this type of scheduling, but for some clients it should, thanks for the reminder.
    =)

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