Marketers, Agencies Rally During Epic Thai Flooding

As Nation Experience Gradual Devastation, Blueprint Emerges for Dealing With Encroaching Disasters

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Witawat Jayapani has bigger things on his mind than winning his next creative award. Instead, the co-chair of TBWA's critically awarded Creative Juice and a former chair of Thailand's Advertising Association, has spent recent days surrounding his home with 100 sandbags. His chief creative officer, Thirasak Tanapatanakul, has sealed his doors and windows with silicone glue before abandoning his house for a safer spot downtown. And half the agency's staff has been evacuated as at least 60% of Bangkok is underwater.

Pongsuree Asanasen
Pongsuree Asanasen
As devastating floods sweep through Thailand, marketers are finding their factories and headquarters underwater and their own staffers -- as well as millions of customers -- homeless. Mr. Jayapani estimates ad spend in a country where the top five advertisers are Unilever, Procter & Gamble, L'Oreal, Beiersdorf and Coca-Cola will plunge by at least 40% in the fourth quarter.

But unlike Japan's sudden earthquake and tsunami earlier this year, Thailand is experiencing gradual devastation as the floodwaters advance, allowing marketers some time to make plans, which are emerging as a blueprint for coping when disaster is encroaching.

Some key lessons for savvy marketers: Use ad budgets to broadcast how people can help themselves and contribute to the relief effort. Participate in that effort, whether by opening shelters or distributing desperately-needed items, by boat if necessary. Partner with the best relief groups, like the Red Cross. Focus on your most practical products, such as churning out bottled water around the clock or distributing your cleaning products for the recovery phase. Innovate and create new products suitable to the current calamity.

The current hit product in Thailand is a portable cardboard toilet, used with a plastic bag, from paper conglomerate SCG, which is giving away 1 million units and selling more at a nominal price.

Many marketers are realizing they don't have much choice but to pitch in. Hundreds of plants are underwater, supply chains are disrupted, and potential customers, even if they haven't lost their jobs, are hoarding money to fix up their homes and cars when the floodwaters finally recede. Entire categories, like automotive, have stopped advertising because either their plants or their parts' suppliers are flooded.

For many in Bangkok, part of the horror is knowing the inundation is still coming.

"The anticipation is terrible and people want the water to come and then go," said Punnee Chaiyakul, chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Thailand, whose Bangkok office was about three kilometers from the floodwaters as of Friday. "There is little faith in the government's effort, which is why people and companies have joined together to help each other. International brands, large local companies and the general public have joined in a collaborative effort."

Coca-Cola might be the case study for best practice in a national disaster.

In early October, when it became apparent that the flooding would turn into a national emergency, Coca-Cola's Thailand team took action. The decision was made to cease all product advertising, turning over previously-purchased media to recovery and relief efforts. For the fifth-biggest advertiser in the country, spending close to $40 million a year, that 's no small commitment, with 119 TV spots, 840 radio spots and three print ads dedicated to the message "Reunite to Relieve and Rebuild Thailand." Advertising aimed to raise funds and recruit volunteers for the Thai Red Cross Society and Habitat for Humanity Thailand. Coca-Cola's agency is Ogilvy.

"The current flood in Thailand is the most devastating flood we've seen during our lifetime," said Chanisa Kaewruen, marketing director for Coca-Cola in Thailand. "The overwhelming nature of the flood left millions of concerned Thais helpless."

Coca-Cola has been rallying those people to participate in mobile kitchens set up with the Thai Red Cross. And as floodwaters recede, the company will be working with Habitat for Humanity Thailand to clean up, repair and rebuild more than 590 homes and six schools and shelters across four provinces. Ms. Kaewruen estimates the TV spots reached 75% of the Thai public and says the company has already recruited 3,000 volunteers.

In Coca-Cola's bottling facilities, bottled water is being produced in three shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Two bottling plants north of Bangkok are not affected but have been surrounded by deep floodwater. Coca-Cola's headquarters in Bangkok is now inaccessible, Ms. Kaewruen said.

Other companies are also doing what they can to contribute to relief efforts. With roads flooded, Procter & Gamble has been moving relief products by barge, said a spokeswoman. Trevor Gorin, a Unilever spokesman, said that the company has launched an initiative called "Take U Home," to assist residents once flood waters have receded.

"The project is just starting in Ayathaya (north of Bangkok), where the water has started to recede, and it involves our people helping to clean the homes of affected communities and providing them products to assist them in settling back in," Mr. Gorin said in an email.

Among local marketers, Thailand's leading Singha beer brand set up an evacuation center in one of its downtown offices. The company also hired unemployed workers as a roving Singha rescue team to distribute food and water. Real estate developer Noble Development redirected its existing ad budget to ads suggesting people help by donating to the Thai Red Cross Society, with the tagline "We will get through this crisis together."

Creative Juice's Mr. Jayapani said he expects the still-spreading floods to last at least another month, with recovery starting in December. But many factories are so damaged that repairs are likely to take another three months, pushing start-up back to April 2012, he said.

As flooding continues, Bangkok's usually gridlocked traffic has disappeared as people leave their cars, often entirely wrapped in plastic, on the highest ground they can find.

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