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Caught in a Big Storm

I’m a Florida girl. I love the sun, beaches, and tennis year round. When I moved here three years ago, I never even thought about hurricanes — I live on the west coast — most hurricanes I’d heard about didn’t even know there’s a city named Tampa. How things change This year the family of evil storms amped up its aggression and certainly its reach. The well-known Sunshine State now has a new brand, “Hurricane Hell.” The entire state has felt this devastating blow.

I’m a Florida girl. I love the sun, beaches, and tennis year round. When I moved here three years ago, I never even thought about hurricanes — I live on the west coast — most hurricanes I’d heard about didn’t even know there’s a city named Tampa.

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How things change
This year the family of evil storms amped up its aggression and certainly its reach. The well-known Sunshine State now has a new brand, “Hurricane Hell.” The entire state has felt this devastating blow.

Hurricanes, terrorism, wildfires, war, or any catastrophic occurrence can hit any place, any brand, any time — that’s a given. Sure, we’ve got better technology, intelligence, and forecasting methods than even a few years ago, but the reality is that most tragedies are not considerate and come unannounced.

In times of crisis, brands can suffer the same damaging pain as people. And depending on how they respond to the ordeal, they can earn either lifetimes of loyalty or permanent scars of brand defection.

Many brands become an even more vital part of our lives during a crisis. Depending on the nature of the brand, they can take on several significant roles in the community’s experience — from a humanitarian friend who contributes supplies or volunteers to trusted information experts like “Barry, the Bug Guy” of Truly Nolen, who provides advice on keeping pests out of your home after bad weather, or the news networks providing minute-by-minute updates on the grim situation.

Survival brands stand out
Basic human need brands supercede everything else. Providers of power, information, communication, shelter, food, and essential supplies become God-like in the chain of importance. They also become a living symbol of security, comfort, and community.

If your brand falls in this “survival need” category, during crisis time you may receive added brand attention, along with hostile brand scrutiny due to the high emotions of the market.

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Shortly after Hurricane Jeanne, Publix, a Florida-based grocery store chain, ran radio spots asking for customer patience and apologized for their stores being out of some products. The human side of their brand was consoling and the timely dialogue was reassuring. “Where shopping is a pleasure” still holds true for them.

While no one wishes to brand during a crisis, it’s part of life and doing business. Good brands are about market presence, distinction, filling a need, and delivering on a promise. Great brands are that and much more. They sustain brand equity by earned trust, solid relationships, resiliency, and emotional sensitivity, especially when life’s waters get rough.

Earning trust
Earning trust starts the day you launch your brand. It’s about keeping promises, having integrity, and being authentic. When crisis hits, it’s paramount to maintain this same degree of honorable activity. Price gouging, taking advantage of distressed people, or prolonged down service will wipe out years of brand goodwill.

You can do it; we can help — Home Depot promises and delivers. “Shortly after tragedy hits, our customers expect us to be open and in stock. They trust that we will be there for them, and we do everything to live up to these expectations,” says David Sandor, director of public relations for the retailer. “That is why at great cost we pulled product from as far away as California Home Depot store shelves and shipped it to Florida during the hurricanes. It was more important to us that we take care of the customer.”

The disastrous San Diego wildfires of 2003 created a situation that tested the brand of BRE, a real estate investment trust. Almost 700 apartments were endangered and had to be evacuated immediately. Key actions included immediate setup of an 800-number crisis hotline, moving residents into temporary housing and providing aftermath housing options with reduced prices and waved security deposits. Food vouchers and cash funds were dispersed from a donation fund by BRE staff and other residents, and the CEO sent a letter advising of a 100% concession on that month’s rent.

Building solid relationships
Enduring brands understand their existence is more about the relationship than the transaction. Maintaining solid relationships with not only your customers but your employees and their families is essential when disaster strikes.

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MARC USA, a national advertising agency, was in the midst of a major new business pitch and also about to launch a new campaign for a client, all out of its Florida office. Hurricanes were hovering; business and employee safety were on the line.

“We didn’t miss a beat,” said, Michele Fabrizi, MARC USA CEO. “Everything went without a hitch. We quickly moved people to other offices. Business was never interrupted.”

How did the company manage that? MARC has organized an emergency response task force that looks at three things: people, technology, and client service. The organization’s leaders focus on the safety and wellbeing of employees first — making Red Cross and other emergency information readily available. And the firm has strived for technological backups. “Our technology is designed to mirror our business structure of one agency with multiple offices,” Fabrizi says. ” We can support any client from any office. Nothing is ever at risk.”

Practicing emotional sensitivity
Brands connect through emotions and confirm through logic. Times of trouble and crisis elevate everyone’s emotions. The brand stewards and brand buyers are all in a high-stress and low-patience mindset. Managing this time with an extra layer of sensitivity can add to your brand’s life. Ignoring the psychological state will kill off loyalists faster than you can say, “I’m cranky.”

Basic crisis responses include:

1) Consider changing your phone messaging system to acknowledge the current situation.

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2) Provide employee sensitivity training before a bad situation, and then at the time of the event revisit with your front-line service folks and make sure they understand what your customers are feeling.

3) If your communication or advertising is usually “in their face” and bold, soften your tone, speak in a more compassionate voice, or consider halting your normal selling communication until the recovery process is over.

4) Create time-sensitive products that meet heightened crisis needs. When flooding hit Pennsylvania hard after Hurricane Ivan, within a week PNC Financial Services Group launched a $150-million low-market interest loan program. They also visited homeowners and businesses in hardest hit communities, provided $250,000 in assistance grants for most needy victims, and implemented the PNC Bank Flood Relief Program.

When buyers are experiencing life pains that come with tragic events, a friendly, compassionate, human-faced brand can create a lasting bond of loyalty.

Being resilient
OK, so the sky opens up. It’s bad in business land. 95% of your employees can’t get to work, you have no electricity, and your office roof was blown off. How fast can you bounce back?

While many consumers understand the consequences of a bad event, they never lose their demanding attitude and want life back to normal ASAP. Organizations that can demonstrate resiliency and rapid back-to-business behavior earn major brand points.

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AutoZone, a retailer with some 3,400 stores throughout the United States, was ready. After Hurricane Charley was forecast, they staged an inventory program (i.e., portable generators, batteries, flashlights, water) at a safe nearby location. The day after the storm, merchandise was rushed into stores in the affected areas. All but one of their stores were open the day after the storm. The company also donated water to relief efforts.

Every brand should be ready
If there’s one thing we can all count on, it’s that stressful stuff and tragedy will continue to happen. Every brand should have a “what if” contingency plan. Do the right things. Your brand presence will naturally follow.

Your brand is the face of your offering, organization, product, or yourself. It’s the sum of all you do in your market. It’s how you handle and communicate through all your touch points — when times are great and when times stink.

Brand on!

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