Good Marketing, Bad Marketing: On Being Human And A Business In The Wake Of Hurricane Sandy

Good Marketing, Bad Marketing: On Being Human And A Business In The Wake Of Hurricane Sandy

Disasters bring out the best and worst in us. I witnessed some amazing displays of compassion and humanity and some abysmal behaviors that one can only cope with by completely ignoring them and putting our faith in our better selves.

The same can be said for marketing. There’s the good, the bad and the just plain abysmal. It doesn’t take much to find examples of each in the days following a natural (or even man-made) disaster. One hardly has to look further than one’s Twitter stream or email inbox.

Here’s a thing that gets overlooked quite often: businesses are people, too.

And I don’t mean that customers forget that there are faces behind our logos. I mean that businesses sometimes forget that they’re people and not just marketers.

In the pursuit of the perfectly timed promotion, some businesses latch onto anything and everything and forget good sense.

Think Kenneth Cole and Cario. And in this day and age, with every single character from our keyboards having the potential to become an instant gaffe or social media nightmare, these errors in judgment are all the more obvious and damaging.

But then, there are the businesses who remember that just because they have a product or service to sell, it doesn’t mean they have to do that every. single. second. For these businesses, the words “social media backlash” don’t even figure into the equation because it doesn’t occur to them to capitalize on disaster or tragedy. They react as people, and people appreciate it.

So here are a few things I noticed about business, marketing and people in the week or so after the hurricane. These are pretty small things, and most will die on the vine. Some will cost their businesses a bit of PR and money, some may inspire loyalty. But you can be sure that you’ll see them again at the next disaster and when you do, perhaps it will inspire the better self in you to be more like the heroes of these stories.

The Good

Many of the “good behaviors” I saw came from some of the most maligned companies out there. You could be cynical and call it good PR to throw out offers of help during a bad event. I would rather see it as the better nature of the people behind the companies.

Barclay’s Bank – certainly no stranger to recent controversy – sent out an email to its credit card holders with well-wishes and a brief, succinct message: all late fees, cash advance fees and card replacement fees (and red tape) would be waived during the crisis period. They followed that with a phone number you could call for more options.

Now, you may not think that’s the most noble of gestures from a big, rich bank, but it’s an important one. I don’t know about you, but as someone who does my banking online and at the end of the month, I can tell you that all my payments were late this month. A week without power and internet will do that to you. And once I knew my house – and those of my friends and family – were still standing, yes, I did think, “Good grief, all my bills are late. That’s a lot of fees.”

This was a nice peace-of-mind gesture that I appreciated and it showed a sensitivity to the real (corollary) problems that people might face.

Best Buy – not exactly fanboy central – opened up its store as soon as power was restored with a big sign out front inviting people to use their charging station. They had set up the entire front of the store with outlets, tables and chairs for people to come with their phones and laptops.

I don’t know about every Best Buy of course, only the one local to me, but with the large majority of my neighborhood still without power, the front half of that store looked more like a refugee camp than an electronics store.

Not sure if any of that translated to sales, but I saw a whole lot of people charging and nobody on any checkout lines.

Given the lifespan (or lack of it) of an iPhone battery, this was the perfect gesture for a lot of frustrated people.

Rave Movie Theater – my local theater – had power days before most of the residential locations. It was a respite from sitting in the cold and dark, believe me. For the duration of the outage in my area, they had a charging station set up and they gave each person a free popcorn. Didn’t even matter if you were actually going in to watch a movie.

For everyone who sat in their houses watching their freezers thaw, this was a nice respite.

Comcast – not the most beloved of companies – provided free wifi service during the crisis for everyone in the affected area.

There was some backlash for this, too, probably because we love to hate on certain companies. The complaints went: thanks for the wifi, Comcast, I don’t have power to use it. Go hand out food and supplies instead.

To me that’s just ridiculous. Comcast is not in the business of handing out food and supplies. It offered its own business to others in a relevant way. I’m not handing out food and supplies, either. But I am helping my customers get their servers back up and running, sending out emergency emails and posting emergency website messages for no cost.

And no, not everyone could take advantage of the offer but for those who could, it was a gift. Take it from someone who couldn’t get a phone call or email out to let anyone know I was alive and well for several days.

If each of us – business and person alike – contributed something within our means and skill, we’d cover and awful lot of ground.

The Bad

Some of these can be considered offensive, some just less than helpful. They will probably blow over and maybe already have, but I doubt many people are feeling warm fuzzies toward these companies right now. I don’t think any of these people set out to be insensitive. But they were too busy thinking “bottom line” to think for a moment about the actual customers they serve.

Cigars Now – an online retailer that we frequent mostly for the prices – ran a promotion called “Hurrican Sandy Coupon”. That’s right, they were so busy rushing off that email that they couldn’t even be bothered to spell check. Although they did manage to spell hurricane properly elsewhere, I saw no connection between their cigar sale and anything relevant to people affected by the storm.

I suppose if you still had a dry match you could light up in the dark and take comfort. But the email came without so much as a “hope your house is still standing” message. Oh, and the offer? 6% off. Not 5. Not 10. But 6. I want to know who did the math on that one.

I’m thinking that maybe I won’t mind paying a bit more at a somewhat less insensitive retailer.

American Apparel – this one made the news – sent an email that invited you to “shop if you’re bored”.  I’d put this one on the insensitive leaning heavily toward offensive side. With a slew of other retailers – from Williams-Sonoma to Fossil – sending out well-wishes and the rest of them staying wisely silent, American Apparel decided that boredom was the top emotion to capitalize on.

I’ll admit, sitting in the cold and dark for a week was kind of boring. And I was lucky enough that I didn’t have to worry about repairing damage or fishing my prized possessions out of the mud. But at no point did I think, “I’m so bored I wish I could just shop right now.”

I’m pretty sure a vast majority of people were more concerned with getting bread and gas than the season’s hottest trends.

If they really wanted to capitalize, they might at least have feigned concern by offering 20% off so people could replace their lost and damaged wardrobes. But bored? Really?

Home Depot – who didn’t need to capitalize on anything and made out like bandits as everyone bought generators and supplies – was just unhelpful. After several days without power, phone or internet and thinking of all the to-dos I had left undone, I called them without much optimism to find out if they had any generators.

They didn’t.

I asked if they’d be able to order one for me.

They couldn’t.

And it’s not that I expected either of those answers to be “yes” but the person who answered the phone was neither polite nor helpful. The answer to whether or not they could order a generator was, “We don’t do that.”

?

After some more questioning which was clearly irritating her, she told me in a “duh, you are soooo stupid” voice that, “It’s a crisis. We don’t order stuff in a crisis.” And hung up on me.

Granted, this was a single person and maybe she had been hammered with questions from crabby customers all day. But it didn’t exactly make me want to run to Home Depot next time I need a power washer or something.

My feeling is that no matter your job or industry, you should be prepared to deal with your customers. Through the good and the bad. And even though 4,976 customers may be crabby and ruin your day, you still don’t get to be abrupt and unhelpful to the 4,977th.

AT&T – who drops your calls on a good day – was decimated in the storm. Even after power and internet were restored, I still couldn’t make a cell phone call.

I know there was damage to the infrastructure. I get that. Even Verizon had its outages. But it took AT&T four days before they even sent a message out about the issue, and when they did, it basically said, “Sorry.”

Irritated more by the lack of the communication or (even feigned) concern, I complained to them later on Twitter. I think their response there was, “Sorry.”

Someone get them a marketing manager.

I’ve been crabby about their cell connectivity for years but never bothered switching providers. And in the end, their lack of empathy and not their cell service is what’s going to send me packing.

The Ugly

The only really abysmal responses to the hurricane that I saw personally were a result of the New York City Marathon. This is not an argument for or against holding the marathon, but to the response that came in the wake of its cancellation.

The NYRR (New York Road Runners) issued a letter to its membership that subsequently became public and essentially blamed the cancellation on an “antagonistic media” response. Not, you know, because millions of people were suffering.

One of the complaints made against holding the marathon was that resources would be diverted away from rescue and recovery efforts. The NYRR letter assured readers that it would not have diverted resources, but thanks to perceptions that created “controversy and division” (read: unnecessary), the marathon would be cancelled.

They apologized – to the runners.

Ok, I know the marathon is a big deal. It raises money for the city and participants spend a lot of time training. They spend money to travel and it’s not only a disappointment but a hefty expense to participate.

It’s also a disappointment and a hefty expense when your entire home and all your personal belongings are washed into the street because the rest of your house has been blown into the ocean.

The NYRR letter strikes me as a huffy reaction in what they expected to be an echo chamber of disgruntled runners.

And they did indeed get some of that back. People who made startlingly indefensible comments on blogs to the effect that nobody should lift a finger to help anyone in New York because they were selfish. Trolls, maybe. I hope so.

At any rate, even though the NYRR organization may have forgotten its roots in humanity, the vast majority of the displaced runners did not. Instead of a marathon, they took part in the distribution of supplies and cleanup efforts.

A negative turned into a positive in the end, but the whole thing could have been avoided if the organization had reacted like a person first, not second.

The Questionable

Car company Uber got into some hot water by implementing what it referred to as “surge pricing” and the general public referred to as “price gouging” in the days following the storm.

The truth is, the company has a policy to implement higher prices during high demand times. The other truth is that the many people displaced by flooded subways and other obstructions had no idea that this was the case. And hammered by the storm and its fallout, people certainly weren’t feeling the warm fuzzies of a bottom-line policy.

Uber may have been providing a service that was badly needed, and they may have provided it fairly, but there were those few and far between who felt that way. And when it comes to business, isn’t brand all about perception?

Uber sent out an email – after the fact – explaining the policy. Too little too late. They ended up back pedaling and absorbing the extra costs so customers could pay regular rates. Sort of a band-aid on a guy with a sword stuck through his chest.

Bad PR. Bad approach. Someone might have bent over backwards arranging for those cabs and getting drivers on the roads but we’ll never know.

Instead of losing $100,000 a day as a concession for mishandling expectations, they could have given $100,000 in reduced fares to riders. A little foresight could have made the difference between bad PR and brand loyalty.

Ironically, they offered free rides to people going to their polling places on Election Day. So surge-gate sounds more like a case of a lack of foresight – and forgetting that on the other end of all those policies and user agreements are – you got it, people.

How about you? Did you see any examples of good behavior or bad marketing after the hurricane? Share your observations with me!

Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn is a content creator and marketer who has been in the business of digital marketing since 1999. Along with her husband and business partner Ralph, she owns and operates both {Web.Search.Social}, a consulting and marketing services business, and Rahvalor Interactive, a web and creative services production studio. On any given day Carol Lynn will wear the hat of project manager, consultant, social media manager and content marketer. Her true passion is writing, whether it’s web content, a blog post, email campaign or social status update. When she's not writing for customers, {Web.Search.Social}, or her own blog, she's planning her early retirement to Barcelona as a famous and wealthy novelist.
Carol Lynn Rivera
Carol Lynn Rivera
  • Cynthia Yoder

    It warms my heart to think of corporations such as Best Buy offering their stores as a charging station. Maybe corporations ARE people (kidding on that last bit). I’ve have friends and colleagues offering services that will share a % with Sandy victims. I like this, because some people want to know how to help, and don’t know how. If they partake in a service they had interest in AND monies are going to Sandy, then it seems to me that everyone wins!

    • lol… good one 🙂 I agree, there are all kinds of ways to help, big and small, so let’s appreciate those efforts!

  • Adrienne

    I’ll be honest with you Carol, I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on with these companies. I just wanted to make sure that the people I knew were okay and of course, just checking with them on Facebook was the only way I could find out, eventually.

    I did hear about waiting until the day before to cancel the marathon. My brother knows a guy in NY that owns a hotel and the runners that were coming in were ticked because they had reservations but he had his friends from his neighborhood he was putting up because they had to evacuate. I can understand those guys being ticked about not having a place to stay but he said he wasn’t going to throw them out in the street.

    I think for those companies who stepped up was definitely the right thing to do. We didn’t have that back when Ike hit but I was able to go down to Walmart and use their electrical outlet they have outside. It helped to just be able to call someone once the roads were cleared so that I could head down to the store.

    I think that more corporations have to think long turn happy customers. It’s pretty obvious that a lot of them definitely didn’t and I hope to hell this hurts their business tremendously. I was going to purchase a new dishwasher this month from Home Depot but you just changed my mind on that one. I’m taking my business to Lowes. That will teach them!

    ~Adrienne

    • Even businesses can help our in a crisis, and sometimes they’re the ones with the power and money enough to do it. It definitely shows a human side when you see companies doing things with no ulterior motives. And people appreciate the goodwill – I know I do!

  • Wow, you sure know how to use any kind of situation/story to write an excellent and thought provoking article.

    By the way I know how you guys much have felt, because back in 2002 we had an ice storm here in North Carolina, and most people lost power anywhere from 3-10 days. I lost mine for 7 days and it was HELL. The only time I was comfortable was at night when I slept, because I bundled up like I was camping on a cold mountain and I actually didn’t feel cold with my coat, hat and glove under two comforters.

    I find it incredible that considering what’s going on in the North East, some people still worry about the marathon. Really strange! People who still complained even where there were given free connection just goes to show that some people can just never be grateful, but we already knew that, right?

    Thank you for this great post, yet again 🙂

    • I’m with Sylviane, I know the feeling of being cold, hungry, without basic resources — and it’s quite intense. HELL, you could say 🙂

      I’m not sure about the marathon thing, lol 🙂

    • Thank goodness it wasn’t that cold here. I can’t imagine how horrible it must be to have no heat in the dead of winter. And you’re right, some people just like to complain. Businesses don’t *have to* give us anything. So when they choose to do so, I appreciate it. The marathon thing was just really, really badly handled, but that’s for another story!

  • Carol Lynn! This. Is. Fantastic.

    With all the attention on the Hurricane, is hard to surf and not bump into it, but this is one of my fave articles, by far.

    Your rundown and personal experiences shared here speak volumes.

    I particularly love your understanding view on Comcast — most complaining of any kind usually shocks me a bit — it’s almost always unnecessary/unproductive, especially in the face of a business or person doing their best to offer what they can.

    (At the same time, if a business like American Apparel is offering a way to RELIEVE boredom, I’m kinda… ok with that too. 😉

    The Home Depot one is great — impolite customer service is impolite customer service, and it feels crappy, at any time 🙂

    Anyway, really happy to read this, keep ryzin’!

    • Thanks, Jason, I’m really glad you enjoyed this. It’s hard not to notice some of these behaviors, especially when there is a heightened state of emotion. Even the small slights seem worse, and that’s where I think American Apparel went wrong. I’m not saying there weren’t bored people, I just think it was an insensitive way to try and offer a coupon and drum up business.I imagine a lot more people were worried about their homes and families – not about boredom.

  • Christine Brady

    Hi Carol Lynn,

    I had to bookmark this and come back to it – there is so much to take away from it…

    I find the American Apparel thing interesting – I did see it somewhere else online – I wonder if all the negative publicity has negatively impacted their sales – you just have to wonder, “what were they thinking?!” Really, what on Earth was going through their minds when they created that coupon – it just astounds me.

    I’m not in the Northeast, so my first-hand experience with assisting has been solely through online donations, but I think it’s great to expose what really goes on on the front line.

    My thoughts are with you and everyone else as they undertake the rebuilding process.

    ~Christine

    • I was wondering that myself… I have a feeling the whole ad will blow over and it won’t matter much. But it just doesn’t speak well for the empathy of the company! Sometimes these things stick in people’s heads and next time I’m out shopping, maybe I won’t bother to stop into that store. There are better ways to play a deal!

  • i like comment =) =>>>”I was wondering that myself… I have a feeling the whole ad will blow
    over and it won’t matter much. But it just doesn’t speak well for the
    empathy of the company! Sometimes these things stick in people’s heads
    and next time I’m out shopping, maybe I won’t bother to stop into that
    store. There are better ways to play a deal!”