Think Fast, Be First

Twenty-four hours after New York City lost one of its most famous landmarks, Amazon.com had removed all of its usual promotions and publicity material from its home page, extended condolences to the American population, and announced a program to donate money from purchases made on the site to the victims of the horrendous attack.

Amazon.com wasn’t the only Internet enterprise to offer support to victims of the world-shattering catastrophe. Several sites around the globe established similar support programs within hours of the attack.

First of all, fantastic. “Well done” to those brands that not only reacted speedily to events but also managed to exhibit the humanity in their value platforms. There’s no doubt that Amazon’s timing was crucial to this success. The terrible event was a tragedy not just for New York City or America. This was a global event that touched every cognizant human being. Imagine an event so uniting in its horror that more than 20 countries across Europe paused together for three minutes’ silence three days after the attack.

Within just 12 hours, Amazon had collected more than $600,000. But aside from these financial results, the brand has collected much more. In demonstrating its human face, Amazon has garnered kudos that might otherwise have taken years to establish, at a cost of millions of dollars. The fact that Amazon was the first global brand to react, to articulate a clear position — to spend time and money on the site’s responsive development and management — has created yet another twist to the brand that under ordinary circumstances would be almost priceless.

I wonder; would every brand gain value from this type of response? Could Barnes & Noble and Borders, for example, do the same with similar success? The answer is yes, if they were the first to do it, and no, if they were second. Here’s a Catch-22 for the second-place responders. Brands responding to the tragedy after Amazon has already set the pace could earn themselves a copycat image — not very appealing to their audiences. But if these brands let go of the opportunity, they succeed in making the Amazon program unique and risk being seen as lacking a human conscience and being insensitive to a global event.

The response of most American companies to the ghastly event could have been engineered to simultaneously demonstrate community support in the aftermath and to build their brands. Even the copycats would have succeeded in gathering brand strength as long as they worked quickly enough to confound any awareness of who was the first to put the idea into practice. Delay eliminates the chance that copycat brands may have had to show the world the responsible and human side of their brand identities. Unless those brands are participants in industries with a transparent involvement in the tragedy, such as airline companies.

Whether a brand should act as a copycat isn’t my point. The relevant issue is that Amazon displayed its ability to think outside the box while supporting its brand’s values and, potentially, generating goodwill without major investment.

That’s good branding.

Good branding isn’t necessarily a matter of nice ads, impressive Web sites, and glamorous television commercials. It’s about creative thinking, engineering brand difference, and demonstrating a capacity for original thinking that none of your competitors can replicate.

So, here’s my question: When was the last time your thinking surpassed your limits?

Editor’s note: For more on the impact of the September 11 attack, check the special section of internet.com’s E-Commerce/Marketing Channel, The Trade Center Disaster: Industry Response.

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