Lessons for Thailand: How Japan's Marketers Are Handling Post-Disaster Consumer Bonding

Eight Months After Earthquake, Rescue and Recover Phases Give Way to Figuring Out How to Rebuild

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When a major disaster like the Japanese earthquake in the Tohoku region hits, it is only natural – as marketers, not just as individuals – to ask ourselves what can/should we do? The answers to that question are not always clear.

Junko Kiuchi
Junko Kiuchi

Countless companies offered support immediately after the 9.0 earthquake struck northern Japan in March. In many cases, their efforts drew media attention and touched peoples' hearts. On the other hand, some activities risked generating negative feelings when the content or timing of PR activities is inappropriate.

As marketers, we should carefully consider the tone of social discussion and conduct activities with sensitivity to victims by seeking consensus with the afflicted areas. When planning marketing or disaster support activities, it is helpful to consider the three phases of disaster relief: Rescue, Recover, Rebuild.

Phase 1: Rescue
As the scope of the disaster quickly came into focus in the days following the Japan earthquake, there were several high profile stories about corporations providing immediate support to victims. Some of the biggest news surrounded business leaders Tadashi Yanai (Uniqlo) and Masayoshi Son (Softbank), who each donated millions of dollars from their personal fortunes. Their bold and generous decisions just days after the earthquake surprised and inspired not only disaster victims but the nation as well.

Companies who delivered necessary life supplies right after the earthquake also gathered a great deal of empathy from the general public. These included Nissin (Cup Noodles in hot water-equipped kitchen cars); Procter & Gamble, Kao, Shiseido (diapers, feminine care, shampoo , etc.); Uniqlo (clothing); Coca-Cola Japan (drinking water and major cash donation); and many others.

In addition to the material value, the speed with which these individuals and companies acted is what really counts in Phase 1 of disaster relief. Most consumers recognize the difficulty in making decisions regarding large amounts of money; therefore, we were deeply inspired by companies who took immediate action.

Phase 2: Recover
After a few weeks, survivors had sufficient access to daily goods, but donations kept coming. Unfortunately, this created unforeseen annoyances such as overstocked warehouses, distribution snags, etc., which put additional stress on the victims. Meanwhile, daily needs beyond 'rescue' came sharply into focus, such as putting affairs in order, preparing students to return to school, and even such mundane chores as doing laundry.

During the 'Recover' phase, we must offer supplies and services that truly meet needs as they shift from 'Survival Support' to 'Daily Living Support'. Needs often vary depending on damage to local infrastructure. Visiting the site in person to gather first hand accounts of what is needed is crucial for marketers to develop appropriate plans. The insight gained in this phase can help brands tweak activities to be even more meaningful to the victims – and, eventually, to the brand.

For example, P&G, after learning that disaster areas lost both running water and sewage, instituted a laundry service through their detergent brand Ariel. A laundry center was set up in a neighboring prefecture unaffected by the tsunami, and trucks were provided to pick up and deliver clothes to and from the center, where they were washed and dried, then returned to the victims. Through this service, P&G provides clean clothes, improves shelter living conditions, and gives victims some measure of hope. Since the activity is strongly linked to the brand's 'refreshing clean' equity, media coverage not only helps P&G touch people's hearts but also has a positive impact for the brand.

Another example is Fuji Film's Photo Rescue Project, which is based on the insight that some of the hardest things for victims to 'lose' were photos that contained memories of their lives before the disaster. Fuji provides know-how and volunteer staff to wash contaminated photos found in the wreckage. The plan was developed after seeing the disaster victims looking for mementos in wreckage of buildings destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami. Photos with family memories have provided great psychological support to victims who lost everything, and at the same time reminded them of the value of photos.

Phase 3: Rebuild
Rebuilding Tohoku will take years, and no one can say when, if ever, business in Northern Japan will be "back to normal." Still, marketers are faced with the reality that business must grow sales – indeed, the economy must grow for the recovery to continue. For many brands, there may be little to 'do' in this phase, as material support become less critical.

One way to continue a brand's support is to donate funds. This can be done through cause marketing approaches that entice consumers to buy a brand with a part of sales going to the cause. Ideally, brands should find a 'cause within a cause' – a specific support activity that best fits their brand and makes sense to consumers.

Another alternative is to sponsor or engage in a long-term support activity in the affected area. This may require financial and other investments that are hard to attach an ROI to – and therefore should have a very strong fit to the brand's long-term equity and sales goals. The examples of Ariel and Fuji could potentially grow into long-term programs that would surely benefit the people of Tohoku, and their respective brands as well.

Junko Kiuchi is a strategic planner at TBWA/Hakuhodo in Tokyo, responsible for brand strategy and communication planning for global clients.

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