When tragedy strikes, communities go through a period of grief, chaos, and confusion that can last months or even years.
Business owners are not exempt from feelings of uncertainty. Neither are employees.
But, businesses are instrumental in getting a community back on its feet after a disaster and reinstating the normal healing rhythms of everyday life.
Most consumers know that even during the wake of tragedy, a business must still go on - the key is having empathy for those involved, being sensitive to community needs, and remaining respectful and authentic during these hard, sad times.
Things to Consider When Marketing During a Disaster
It may seem strange to think about marketing during a disaster, but businesses that support humanitarian relief efforts often become a hub of activity in related communities.
For example, a grocery chain that does a canned food drive in unaffected neighboring cities.
Or a radio station that runs a campaign to generate cash donations from listeners where all proceeds will go to help the people in need.
As an increasing number of businesses are beginning to recognize, doing good isn't antithetical to good business. On the contrary, it's one of the key drivers of growth.
According to a recent study by Cone Communications, 87% of consumers will purchase a product because the company advocates for a cause they care about.
When you commit to giving back, customers will reward you with their business.
What Not to Do When Tragedy Strikes
Having said that, in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, it's not always possible to return to "business as usual."
In fact, sometimes, companies can make mistakes that make them appear insensitive… or worse.
We all remember the Pepsi and Kendall Jenner ad that went so terribly wrong. PepsiCo learned the hard way that trying to capitalize on a social movement is a bad idea.
The issue wasn’t that they saw a problem and wanted to help out—it’s that they seemed to want nothing more than profit, and there was no visible connection between the product they were selling and the cause they were leveraging. A little compassion goes a long way—but so does a little greed.
While raising money to help people in need may generate new business for you, giving the appearance of doing things for the wrong reason can backfire and hurt sales.
Obviously, referencing a disaster and then changing the subject to be focused on something trivial like online shopping rubbed people the wrong way and is a big no-no during an event like a hurricane.
To keep your company out of the dog house, here are some best practices you can use to promote your business during disaster respectfully:
8 Tips for Marketing Your Products and Services During Sensitive Times
1. Choose A Cause That Aligns With Your Strategy.
If you are a customer service-focused company, that might be a human-centered cause, like providing psychological or social services assistance for people in need.
If you’re a technology company, maybe it’s donating free cell phones or Internet service to the shelters where people are gathering.
2. Be Authentic.
If you genuinely don't care, it may be better not to help.
Your employees, and maybe even your customers will eventually find out if you're only providing assistance for good PR (for example, see the GAP ad above).
On the other hand, if you do care, then find a way to help out and go at it. You will build trust and create loyal customers as you throw yourself into doing good.
3. Don’t Take Advantage Of People.
This should probably go without saying, but taking advantage of people during a crisis will leave a bad taste in the mouths of your customers and community.
In the wake of a disaster, bad actors can make a lot of money by hiking up the prices on essentials, but you don't want to be one of those companies.
If a fire has burned down thousands of homes in your area, don't raise the rate for a room in your hotels. If there’s a shortage of clean water, don’t sell bottles for $10 apiece.
Instead, sell them for standard (or lower) prices until people get back on their feet.
4. Be Generous.
To use the previous example, can you give out free or discounted hotel rooms or complimentary bottled water?
Sometimes you can raise funds in unaffected areas to help cover your losses by asking customers in other areas to help donate housing or necessities in the disaster zone.
5. Be Creative.
During the Great Recession, many companies had to lay off their workers in order to match the declining demand for services.
At Honeywell, leadership recognized that they had a commitment not only to shareholders but also to employees and stakeholders. So, instead of demanding layoffs, they initiated a policy of rolling unpaid vacation.
As a result, the company was able to keep going, employees kept their jobs, and many became even more loyal to the company and to each other, as some volunteered for more time off so that coworkers who experienced a more profound loss could earn the money they required to take care of their families.
6. Plan Ahead.
Disaster marketing often begins years before a disaster.
Insurance agencies, for example, use the threat of catastrophe to market their products during periods of calm and safety because their business model is built on helping customers mitigate the impact of disasters.
Your company, regardless of the industry, can build corporate social responsibility (CSR) into its strategy so that your business is used to raising money for causes.
For example, right now, there is a crisis in what is known as the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador), which has led to the immigration crisis at the US border. The drivers for this crisis include agricultural setbacks, coffee rust, political instability stretching back decades, and more.
7. Carefully Weigh Returning To “Business As Usual.”
If your customers are affected by a tragedy, it's important to acknowledge it, even if you decide not to assist.
This acknowledgment can be in the form of a blog or social media post, a banner on your website, or some other type of statement. But it is essential to acknowledge what your stakeholders are experiencing in an appropriate way.
The caveat is that your statement must align with everything else we've covered in this article.
If you come across as disingenuous, it is better to do and say nothing and fly below the radar, keeping to business as usual.
The best rule of thumb?
If you're calling attention to a disaster, make sure you're doing something about it and not trying to capitalize on the misfortunes of others.
This article first appeared at Hearst Bay