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How brands dealt with Hurricane Sandy

Zeitgeist remembers being in New York on a work placement during the East Coast blackout of 2003. It was a necessary reminder of just how many things rely on electricity. In mid-August, air conditioning, a constant presence year-round in New York, vanished. Cell phones quickly died a death without anywhere to charge them. Hot water shut off, before cold water did too. And of course, without refrigeration, restaurants across the city had to abandon serving customers even as they dumped food they could no longer preserve. So it felt like one of the nicest treats ever when, after 36 hours of experiencing no electricity, Zeitgeist plonked himself down at one of his favourite eateries to indulge in a humongous lunch. There is something very therapeutic about the act of consuming a good meal. As Virginia Woolf said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”.

It was probably with this sort of thinking in mind that the people behind the eCRM programme for the elite diffusions of the Michelin-adorned chef Daniel Boulud sent out this comforting email (above) to those registered on its database, saying basically that their services were available for those that felt up to it. Zeitgeist thought it was a nice note, and importantly written in an appropriate tone of voice. Certainly those establishments that were able to be open saw a surge in business. Indeed, this evening sees the Cafe Boulud team with chef of currently-closed momofuku to create a $500 six-course extravaganza, proceeds of which go to the American Red Cross. The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its doors again on October 31, welcoming over 13,000 people and making entry free. An email from the President of the Museum to friends and members made a show of solidarity and pushed the right buttons.

Other brands also wishing to remind potential customers of their presence during the immense disruptions and terrible circumstances of Hurriance Sandy met with more vociferous reactions, especially on social media. Despite a recent article from the FT imploring businesses to think twice before they tweet, it appears to have gone unheeded, at least by the likes of Gap and American Apparel. Again, it was not necessarily the content, but the tone of voice that was so important here. American Apparel suggested you might be “bored in the storm”, which quickly led some to conclude that the brand was trivialising what was happening, i.e. that lives had been lost and that many were without power. Gap tried a slightly different similar tack. They offered no discount but instead talked up the fact they were shopping online, and, while hoping others were ok, wondered if some other people were also surfing gap.com. Again, this met with much consternation, particularly on Twitter.

Starbucks, meanwhile, managed a more disciplined approach. On Twitter, they reiterated again and again that their thoughts were with those affected by the storm, and that they were working as hard as they could in order to get back up and running again so they could start providing a service for YOU. They weren’t saying anything drastically different to the retailer brands above, it was all to do with the way they were saying it.

The most surprising action taken by a company in response to Sandy was by none other than Goldman Sachs. The business opened their offices to all and sundry afflicted by the disaster, setting up places for local afflicted denizens to get fresh water and, perhaps more importantly for some, to charge their cellphones. What a nice bit of brand-building, and a great humanitarian thing to do as well.

UPDATE (12/11/12): brandchannel recently featured an excellent update on how multiple brands are responding to the ongoing problems caused by Sandy.

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