Branding in the time of catastrophe

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on November 1, 2012

From The News Desk

Mitt Romney isn't the only one to carry on with a campaign while trying not to appear like he's taking advantage of the recent catastrophe. So are businesses like American Apparel, Gap, Urban Outfitters, Groupon, Uber, and others. And like Mitt, whose canned goods drive at an erstwhile Ohio campaign event was met with derision, some of these companies have earned the public's scorn, while others have received accolades. The lesson? For a business operating at a time of crisis, the soft sell is good; the hard sell, bad.

As Stuart Elliott pointed out in the New York Times, at least four major clothing retailers fell prey to the cutesy bug. To those in a region struggling with billions of dollars of destruction, ruined homes, power outages, a lack of transportation and worse, it smacked of gleeful insensitivity. Meanwhile, Groupon came under fire, while Uber was its usual greed-is-good (read: Ayn Randian) self and faced accusations of price gouging in afflicted zones in New York City.

The retailers' undoing came over — what/where else? — Twitter. American Apparel, not known for subtlety in the best of times, Tweeted a "Hurricane Sandy Sale" to those "bored during the storm." Not to be outdone, the Gap bragged: “We’ll be doing lots of shopping today. How about you?” and included a Foursquare check-in at “Frankenstorm Apocalypse — Hurricane Sandy." Urban Outfitters declared, "This storm blows (but free shipping doesn't)," with the hashtags #frankenstorm and #ALLSOGGY. And Adler encouraged shoppers "to storm our site" with a similar Sandy-themed checkout code. Think of all of this as frankenmarketing.

Groupon, on the other hand, offered a deal for dining in the dark, which went over well with those without power just a few blocks away. And Uber didn't fall victim to moronic social media machinations. It was business as usual — in this case, surge pricing to match increased demand (or need, if you will) — that led to its ubermalaise.

American Apparel and the other clothing retailers can't blame unfun puns for the ensuing public outcry, nor should Uber get overly defensive about its attempt to incentivize drivers to come out and work at a time many could be forgiven for staying home to take care of their families. What these companies have in common is their cheerful willingness to make a buck while others suffer. They adopted a hard sell tactic at a time when appearance matters.

The fashion brands, in particular, recognize that image is everything (which is probably why Gap and Adler have apologized). Uber, too, revoked surge pricing, paying drivers the higher rate out of its startup coffers. With Mitt Romney, substitute politicizing a catastrophe for profiting from it, and you end up with the pretty much the same PR problem. Read Buzzfeed for a delicious investigation into operation fake donated canned goods.

But not everyone adopted a losing strategy (from a public perception point of view). While American Apparel, et al., and Uber stumbled after Sandy, other businesses earned brownie points for coming to people's aid, and in the process buffed up their corporate images. Allstate ran radio ads telling policyholders how to file claims, American Express emailed cardholders announcing “emergency" financial, medical, or travel help, and JetBlue waived change and cancellation fees.

It was stodgy, old copper top Duracell, though, that came up with the superior strategy. It sent a truck around to afflicted areas of New York, providing free batteries and charging ports for desperate New Yorkers toting thirsty laptops and mobile phones. Duracell's rescue operation not only showcases what its flagship product does — and underscores just how reliant we are on batteries and battery power — it's cost-effective, too. Yet the PR bonanza is equal to donating $1 million to disaster relief. Yes, people need to recharge their phones that badly.

Now that's electrifying.

[Image Credit: Nick Summers]