#HelpJapan: Do’s and Don’ts for Brands

Businesses, organizations, and celebrities rallied this week to raise money and build awareness for victims of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami.

The Starbucks Foundation and Starbucks Coffee Japan will contribute approximately $1.2 million for disaster relief. Lady Gaga has chimed in, selling a white wristband inscribed with “We Pray for Japan” in English and Japanese, and accepting donations of up to $100 for relief efforts.


Other organizations are providing in-kind services. Google, for instance, created a people-finder site where people can enter the names of those they’re looking for or have found. And, Skype is giving vouchers to people in Japan so they can make landline phone calls to other countries. Alibaba, an e-commerce company based in China, is making it possible for people to buy disaster relief supplies at cost and shipped for free to Japan.


Scores of other businesses, such as Yahoo and Gap, are adding banners and buttons on their sites, promoting charitable organizations that are working to provide humanitarian aide.

ClickZ News, in an e-mail interview, asked Ilana Bryant, chief strategy officer at StrawberryFrog, a “cultural movement” agency, to discuss how brands can raise awareness to a cause – without appearing self-promotional or worse. Here is what she advised.

ClickZ: In light of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, many brands (Starbucks, Groupon, Apple, Skype) are raising or donating money on behalf of charitable organizations and/or providing in-kind services. What are best practices that brands should consider if they want to raise awareness to a cause? How do they avoid appearing self-promotional or in bad taste?

Ilana Bryant: There are great opportunities for brands to mobilize in support of social causes; brands have the scale and user/fan base to achieve great impact. However, aiding during social incidents or natural disasters should be handled very sensitively because the stakes and emotions run very, very high. In a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis, the messaging and delivery must demonstrate a genuine social intent versus a commercial motive. The help should also work in sync with the scale of the crisis and/or address the specific needs required. In fact, the more the brand or marketer can address the specific needs the better, particularly if the brand can add value based on its expertise. For example, during the BP oil spill disaster, Dawn dishwashing liquid donated cases of its products to the disaster crews because it is one of the few products that can be used to remove oil from birds and animals without harm. Similarly, Tide’s Loads of Hope brought mobile laundry unites to areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. More recently, during the crisis in Egypt Google and Twitter created for free a technical solution to solve the problems created when the Egyptian government reduced the country’s Internet capabilities.

ClickZ: Microsoft was criticized for its offer to donate $1 for every retweet of its original pledge. Is there anything Microsoft should have handled differently? Or is that a risk that all brands take when navigating social channels like Twitter and Facebook?

Ilana Bryant: There are sensitives in brands navigating social channel and issues, but this can be done successfully to the benefit of the brand, its fans and society. However, Bing’s offer of 100K “retweet” donation was an “epic fail” because it did not feel genuine, specific to Bing’s expertise or the needs of Japan right now. Bing is part of a global multi-billion dollar powerhouse Microsoft and 100K seemed like a paltry donation rather a real attempt to help. Bing would have done better offering a solution specific to the crisis such as helping Japanese loved ones to find each other and creating a donation system be it via Twitter or another platform for this solution. I think the reception to an initiative like that would have been completely different.

ClickZ: How do you avoid having your message lost when so many other brands are doing the same thing? Or does that matter?

Ilana Bryant: Brands should do something specific to their expertise, not just jump on the bandwagon (see Dawn and Tide examples above). I believe consumers want companies and brands to help, but they must act just like any volunteer to a crisis. Brands should ask the same questions volunteers ask: “What needs to be done and where can I leverage my expertise to help?” If they are donating, they should be specific and demonstrate what specific problem they are solving (e.g. providing shelter, water, cleaning etc) as this demonstrates that good works are being achieved and helps avoid any perception the brand is jumping on the bandwagon. This is what is great about the Pepsi Refresh project and micro loan companies like Kiva.org in that you can see the direct recipients of your support.

ClickZ: Have you ever worked with a brand that tried to bring awareness to a cause during a crisis or other event?

Ilana Bryant: We’ve done a lot of cause marketing (see http://www.the-girl-store.org/shop we did last month) but not yet addressing a specific natural disaster or crisis.

ClickZ: What impact will the crisis in Japan have on the tone of marketing messages, in general? (Not just cause related)

Ilana Bryant: In Japan or U.S.? I think you can feel that the issues in Japan make other issues we’re facing seem petty. Proposals to de-fund NPR before Congress today while bodies are washing up on Japan’s shores and children are facing radiation sickness makes politicians looks small and petty. There is also a strange situation in NY today as thousands of drunk teenagers are wandering around while people are dying on the other side of the world.

In Japan, there seems to be a sense of national connectedness and hope – see both NY Times editorials today from Japanese saying they have re-gained social unity.

It echoes similar things we’re seeing as a result of the financial crisis, such as the British regaining their sense of social unity and national character as an austere nation that “keeps calm and carries on.”

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