A brand is only as great as the sum of its parts. It isn't just about having coveted, quality products. A clever ad campaign. Good customer service. It's about reminding consumers that on the other end of that phone line, website, email, and Twitter feed there are people. And that those people care about their customers.
Brands often struggle with getting this balance just right. Marketers want to come off as "human" and spend a lot of time and energy reminding consumers that they're just like everyone else. If they succeed, they're likely to see increases in brand loyalty and referrals. At the same time, they have a job to do. At the heart of every brand message is a brand message, almost entirely regardless of the context.
We were reminded of this earlier in the week when the East Coast hunkered down to absorb the impact of Hurricane Sandy. As media outlets worked overtime to keep citizens up to date on the storm, brands flocked to Facebook and Twitter with messages of support. "If your family is in an area affected by Hurricane Sandy, please stay safe!" tweeted Parenting.com, which represents both Parenting and Babytalk magazines online. But there was more to the message. The tweet went on to direct consumers to a Parenting.com article that provided ideas for "fun indoor games."
Was the brand carelessly capitalizing on a natural disaster? Should brands steer clear of such sensitive events? The answer, on both counts, is no. To the contrary, brands have a responsibility to market themselves during a crisis.
Brands Own Valuable Content
There's a reason why the phrase "content is king" is so overused: it's the ideal description of the way consumers engage with online media. According to U.K. consulting firm Content+, 70 percent of consumers would rather get to know a brand through its articles rather than ads, and 60 percent feel "more positive" about a company after they've read custom content on its site. Brands that have access to content deemed valuable by consumers should use it to help them at times of need - and that includes during a debilitating storm.
On Monday, The Huffington Post's Huffpost Taste compiled its fall soup and no-cook recipes into a photo gallery and rebranded it "10 Recipes For Before, During, And After The Frankenstorm." The gallery provided readers with practical solutions for being housebound, and for managing the power outages to come.
On the same day, however, a children's apparel company used Twitter to express its hope that people would stay safe only to drive them to an existing winter accessories product page, and an apparel retailer sent an email promising "Prices that will blow you away." It's hard to imagine a consumer prioritizing online shopping at a time when her safety could be at risk, and one certainly can't assume she'll take a storm reference as a joke. It behooves brands to be thoughtful in this respect.
Businesses Have the Power to Help
Big consumer brands are often the first to make their presence known during disasters, and with good reason: they have muscle. Not only are they in a unique position to educate consumers, but their national reach ensures that important messages will be heard.
Target posted an article on its corporate website on Monday explaining how its crisis management center planned to work with community partners to prepare consumers for the impact of the storm; for example, by sending extra shipments of essentials like batteries and dry food to affected areas. The page included a supply checklist and links to videos and hurricane readiness tips. Verizon did the same, using its Facebook page to link to an "Emergency Preparedness" guide specific to staying connected for safety's sake. INC Magazine, meanwhile, used its Twitter feed to promote an article offering advice for "disaster-proofing" one's business. All three are examples of how brand thought-leadership can benefit the community at large.
There Are Customers Beyond the Storm
As terrible as natural calamities like Hurricane Sandy can be, brands have a responsibility not only to their affected customers but to all those who buy their products. For this reason, businesses must maintain communication with consumers throughout these events. Offer-based shopping site Totsy and kids' product e-tailer Albee Baby emailed their customers with special messages stating that, in the interest of keeping their employees safe, they would be temporarily closing their offices, warehouses, and customer service centers. Martha Stewart, meanwhile, tweeted "Is your office closed tomorrow? Ours is as it is in zone A and many of our employees travel by train," letting both consumers and business partners know that her namesake company's headquarters might not be easy to reach. Similarly, Whole Foods advised its East Coast customers to contact their local stores for hours of operation, while simultaneously advising them to stay safe.
Ours is a society dependent on goods and services. Loathe as they sometimes are to admit it, consumers want and need your products - and marketing exists to inform them of their choices. But brands should be held accountable for more than just the quality of their products, their customer service, and their ads. Let's do our part to help.
Storm image on home page via Shutterstock.
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Tessa Wegert is an interactive media strategist with Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy and services agencies, serving such brands as Bioré, Bratz, Food Network, illy, Hunter Douglas, Jergens, and Olympic Paints and Stains. An industry veteran, Tessa has worked in online media buying and planning, marketing, and online copywriting since 1999. She is an active freelance writer specializing in interactive marketing who has contributed to U.S. and Canadian publications, including "USA Weekend Magazine," "Marketing Magazine," "The Globe and Mail," and "The Montreal Gazette." She is frequently quoted as an industry expert and speaks regularly at industry conferences and events.
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