In addition to the human toll, it's impossible to gauge the impact of a disaster on one's business or brand. In such uncertainty, many marketers struggle with "what should our brand do" questions immediately following an incomprehensible tragedy.
When the earthquake struck Japan, I was in the office discussing promotional ideas for a new client. While we thought it best to shelve that particular project, the days and weeks following provided ample opportunity to reflect on the behavior of marketers and brands in a disaster. Though most acted well and surely all in good faith, some behavior in particular led me to wonder about the "common sense" of marketing in a disaster.
Common Sense Marketing in a Disaster No. 1: Postpone your research, project, launch or whatever.
A client wants to do qualitative research the week after the earthquake. When the research agency refused, it had to provide a detailed explanation.
After two days it should have been apparent that a massive (9.0!) disaster had struck. Try to avoid disturbing people who may be suffering with requests that can wait or that you can handle yourself. Whether it's research, events or a product launch, when people are dying, start thinking about postponing your plans.
Common Sense Marketing in a Disaster No. 2: Consider pulling your advertising.
Media departments in Tokyo fielded calls from clients that wanted to know if they could buy ad time at a discount, since everyone else pulled their ads.
In Japan, when a major disaster hits, TV stations pull advertising and replace them with PSAs (Ad Council or "AC" spots) until things quiet down. Similarly, transit and web ads may disappear. After a short period, brands can advertise again, but media outlets set criteria to ensure ads don't "upset" viewers. For example, showing ads with fire after a nuclear power plant explosion is a no-no.
The ad time is bought and paid for by clients, with no cancellations even in a disaster. That makes pulling ads a tough call financially. But unless you are Dr. Evil, death and destruction are not synergistic with your brand. At the very least, reconsider your media strategy, and don't look for bargains.
Common Sense Marketing in a Disaster No. 3: Think before you help.
Volunteers line up to help the children. But many have never changed a diaper, or fed or bathed a baby. Their service is not only useless; it is aggravating to moms deprived of a chance at much-needed relief. A popular toy brand sends thousands of games for the kids in shelters. But there are not enough batteries (washed away) and the electricity is gone. A brand spends a couple of hours in a shelter, with cameras, then immediately leaves.
The outpouring of support, donations and volunteers both from within Japan and from abroad was truly moving. We are right to feel obligated to "do something." But brands should ask themselves a few basic questions: What can we offer? Do you send your product? Offer your service? Collect donations? Rally the troops? Donate cash? Do they need it?
Brands can play many roles -- choose the right one for your brand. What are the basic essentials that people in the disaster area lack? What are things they can wait for? What is likely to be taken care of by government, military or relief organizations? Does your product require special storage, assembly, power, etc., that might not be available in the disaster area? Sometimes it's better not to donate your product or service.
How can we leverage the activity for our brand? In the few conversations I've had with non-governmental organizations and survivors, there is an understanding that a measure of quid pro quo is to be expected: the needy get the stuff they need, and the brand gets some good publicity. That said, if you're not really helping you risk the backlash of thousands of angry people who have the sympathy of the entire nation. PR is nice, but the actual impact of your brand's 'help' is what people remember.
Over time we will hopefully adjust our marketing behavior to be sensitive to the suffering while also doing our part to restore the nation's economy and spirits.
But how we act in a disaster -- just like how we act on our websites, in stores, on TV -- says a lot about our brands. Thankfully, disasters are not common, but having some common sense when they do strike is one of the first things we can do to help.