It's been a tricky time for brands over the past year. Disasters -- both natural and man-made -- have been non-stop and collectively jaw dropping. People are on edge. They have news battle fatigue.
As a result, the tone of conversations in the media and between people in general has taken a turn to a more somber and uncharted place. The hurricanes and wildfires that have devastated communities in Texas, Florida and California and wiped out the entire infrastructure of Puerto Rico have taken a serious toll on how we do business.
Needless to say, when individuals and families don't even have water, food, electricity and other bare essentials for living, they're not looking to buy hair products or shoes or a new car.
Brands can't sit on the sidelines anymore. They need to make sure that the tone of their communications, their actions and their promotional activities factor in the reality of customers' lives.
Brands and Disaster Response: The New Way Forward
Brands Have an Important Role to Play When Disasters Happen
When disasters strike, brands in the insurance, healthcare, construction, power, transportation and logistics industries are inextricably tied to taking action alongside local, state and federal government agencies.
Many companies outside of these sectors are increasingly stepping up in big ways to assist communities in need because they are involved in the impacted community, have employees and vendors based there, have customers affected, or simply because they want to be good corporate citizens. And because news - both good and bad-travels at lightning speed, your brand has to do its part while also considering the tone of how to respond in light of the national mood.
Brands -- even those not obviously affected -- have an important role to play when disasters happen. This includes:
Making and soliciting donations in a genuine, meaningful way
Supplying services and equipment
Encouraging and incentivizing volunteering, especially among their employees and vendors
Working with other organizations -- like NGOs and government agencies - with which they wouldn't normally interact
Helping the communities recover over the long term, not just in the moment
When brands take action in times of crisis, customers notice. If your brand responds with humanity in the face of a disaster, it will resonate emotionally with customers. Genuine displays of caring about customers and their communities is good business.
Brands Who Have Stepped Up
Many brands have stepped up in meaningful ways to help with recent disasters. Some examples:
TJX (parent company of TJ Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods): Despite its employees not being able to work due to the utter devastation of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, TJX paid them anyway, without even announcing it.
Walmart: Used its blog and social media outlets to let customers in the Houston area know it was monitoring the Hurricane Harvey situation and preparing resources for post-disaster assistance. In the aftermath, they leveraged their supply chain and distribution resources to truck supplies to where they'd be needed, including more than 900 truckloads of bottled water alone.
Tesla: Donated solar-powered industrial batteries to provide electricity in Puerto Rico.
JetBlue: When thousands tried to get out of Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma, JetBlue got out in front by price capping its flights while competitors were accused of price gouging.
MGM Resorts: Gave free rooms at the Bellagio after the Las Vegas mass shooting to victims' families and coordinated their travel through Southwest Airlines. Another MGM property, Circus Circus, provided space for the Red Cross to set up a temporary headquarters for the local community.
You can check out how more brands are pitching in:
Hurricanes Harvey (e.g., Dow Chemical, Home Depot and ExxonMobil), Irma (e.g., Tesla and Airbnb) and Maria (e.g., Google and Facebook)
And here are some brands that helped with the California wildfires (e.g., Bank of America, Chevron and Salesforce).
Brands Are More Involved Now
What's different now compared with past disaster responses is that brands are much more self-aware about how customers perceive them in times of crisis, and they act accordingly. After all, every brand is trying to make an emotional connection with consumers, and no situation is more emotional than when lives are threatened. Brands have become smarter and more aggressive about leveraging their unique resources to help and communicate directly with customers and employees.
The number of brands participating, the range of assistance they're offering beyond cash donations, and the frequency of support for disasters has increased. Even when they don't have a significant presence in the affected area, brands are leveraging their products, services and know-how to complement financial assistance. For example, after Hurricane Maria, Facebook sent a "connectivity team" to provide emergency telecom support when Puerto Rico's communications infrastructure was wiped out. Similarly, after Hurricane Irma, Tesla extended the battery life of its Floridian cars so they could drive further to ensure a better chance of getting out of harm's way.
One important difference today is the focus on being proactive in addition to being reactive. Brands like Albertsons, MasterCard and Disney have year-round disaster relief programs that help communities around the world to prepare for disasters before they happen. They leverage their know-how and resources to both help the affected communities and showcase what their brands are all about.
Another key difference is the evolving use of social media. By synchronizing their efforts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other platforms, brands can get the word out about what they're doing to help -- faster and wider than ever before -- all while controlling their message. And, because of their reach and brand recognition, they can mobilize employees and customers to contribute money, volunteer resources and other forms of assistance. All of this is critical because customers are plugged into what's going on and they notice when brands step up, and when they don't.
Beyond social media, brands have exponentially more technology options to leverage for disaster response. One relevant example is the insurance industry, where some brands are using technology like geographic information systems (GIS) to shorten their disaster response times from what used to take days to just hours. When the brand, technology and strong messaging all converge, good things happen and customers notice.
Brand Disaster Response Game Plan
Given the current environment, brands have to be more aware of tone and action than ever before. Some tips:
Show customers, shareholders and employees that it's not all about the money - being an active corporate citizen helps people in need AND pays dividends (brand reputation, awareness, financial) over the long term
Provide products and/or services that leverage your brand
Make an effort to have your brand in the right place at the right time; context is especially important
Think big picture; create a year-round disaster response program and communicate and collaborate with customer communities before disasters strike
Update your messaging to capture the current public mood; a misstep here can cause significant brand damage
Involve employees and vendors/partners, where appropriate through matching donations, encouraging volunteerism, or delivering professional services
Now is the time for brands to be mindful of what's going on in the world, and thoughtful about their actions. Customers want to feel respected and cared for. As long as brands stay in touch with what's happening in their customers' lives, they'll have the opportunity to do right by them and the communities where they live. Because doing good is also good for business.
Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications, Inc. helps companies build reputations and differentiate in a competitive market through thought leadership, public education, issues management, content strategy, and strategic communications. To find out how ICCC can help you and your company build your reputation contact firstname.lastname@example.org, call 212-399-0026 or visit www.ivycohen.com.