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Hurricane Marketing: How to Piss Off People During a Natural Disaster

Illustration by Nick Palazzo

 Around midnight last night, when our power came back on from Sandy’s passing, I thought to myself, “Are there any scheduled tweets in my Hootsuite account right now?” Thankfully, the answer was no, and my feeds had been silent as long as our busted generator had been.

But a glance on Twitter showed that I wasn’t the only one thinking about how stupid a scheduled tweet might look during a crisis.

Even worse, hurricane marketing became a fad over the past couple of days. The word-of-mouth era isn’t exactly the greatest time to make a bad decision, because there’s no such thing as a “quiet mistake.” You can’t accidentally tweet from the wrong account, and you most certainly can’t try to make a dollar off of a Hurricane. Even if half of the Northeast were making jokes about it a few days ago and posting that tired photo of the tipped over lawn chair.

Hurricane Marketing: How to Piss Off People During a Natural DisasterAnd, to be honest, it takes a whole lot to offend me, but when I got the American Apparel “Sandy Sale” email, I was a little shocked like everyone else. Granted, they sent it before the storm really devastated the Northeast, and perhaps it would have been hilarious if the storm passed by, but it didn’t. And people died. And the greatest city in the world is under water.

Being under water is scary. We spent the entire summer working from Florida during hurricane season. In fact, we lived on the water, on the end of a dead-end street, surrounded by water. So during the floods, we were under a few feet of water on all sides of the house. We couldn’t leave because there were alligators and snakes in the yard and electrical wires down. One time, our pooch got a toy lodged around his jaw and we spent four hours sawing it off the poor thing because we couldn’t leave to bring him to a vet.

Flooding isn’t a joke, and it’s really freaking scary. And when one house washes away, it has a habit of creating the domino effect. That was the scariest part for us, but I can’t begin to imagine what New York City or any other major city is like during a flood.

Hurricane Marketing: How to Piss Off People During a Natural DisasterSo at what point does a business make the call to turn a storm into a business opportunity? I’m not sure. Because, you see, Gap didn’t waste any time in their hurricane marketing by pushing people to Gap.com. People who still had power, of course.

But there were several levels of bad here. They checked into the storm, they promoted Gap.com, and what … no discount code?

Cripes, even American Apparel had the brains to make money, all Gap did was spin a boring promo.

But they’re not the only ones trying to profit from the #Sandy and #Frankenstorm hashtags.

According to LATimes:

  • Urban Outfitters is offering free shipping on all orders with the rather apt discount code “ALLSOGGY.”
  • Steven Alan is also running a free shipping promotion with code word “SANDYFREESHIP.”
  • Customers can get 15% off orders over $100 at sport retailer Owner Operator by entering the discount code “FRANKENSTORM.”

There were also lesser-known types of tweets, like Glamour‘s spin on article marketing:


Order a BuzzAudit and take the first step toward running a more visible, personable, and buzzworthy business with a good professional blog.

What, you want some better ideas for marketing during a crisis?

How about donating a shirt for every shirt bought? How about hosting a blood drive? Organizing help for their East Coast colleagues, even?

The less self-centric businesses spent their time sharing resources to donate blood, money, and time to helping victims in the disaster areas.

If you want to “make money” off of a natural disaster, don’t try to make money. Businesses that spent more time trying to help those in the communities, or those from afar, were given high praise and public shout-outs for their genuine, human-helping efforts.

That sort of “marketing” isn’t something you think about – you just do it. Look at your pockets; look at the thousands of followers/fans you have and the giant microphone that comes with it. Look at those in need, and try to help however you can.

At the very least, show your employees that you care by letting them stay home.  During Hurricane Irene, Patrick and I actually took refuge in a Not Your Average Joe’s (the only place that had power).

Hurricane Marketing: How to Piss Off People During a Natural Disaster

Hurricane Marketing: How to Piss Off People During a Natural DisasterBirchbox, who was also affected by the storm, did turn it into a promotional opportunity, but in the most tactful way possible.

Let’s hope this sort of thing doesn’t happen again soon, but in case it does, here’s a handy checklist. Gap and American Apparel employees might want to print this one out.

  • Don’t send out a promotion using the disaster hashtag with a link to a sale.
  • Don’t use the name of the disaster as a checkout promo code.
  • Don’t “check-in” to the storm or make light of it.
  • Don’t make light of it at all actually (just because you’re not wet doesn’t mean someone else isn’t!)
  • Reschedule all of your scheduled tweets. Push them out at least a couple of days.
  • Stunt all marketing efforts until the coast is clear (it’s like sending a random email newsletter on Christmas – it’s just awkward).
  • If you must send an email, make note of the disaster and how you’re willing to help.
  • Watch the news. Please.

Is every business supposed to pipe down during every hurricane, tornado, or earthquake? Of course not. Nobody stopped sending me emails while our Florida house was under water, that’s for sure.

And to be honest, Gap-loyal customers aren’t going to let a moment of insensitivity keep them from shopping. In fact, American Apparel probably made a good chunk of change from that promotion, especially due to all the bad/big publicity it got.

But do put some thought into the things you tweet. That goes for any day, not just sad days like today.

Our thoughts go out to those affected by Hurricane Sandy. Let’s push harder than ever toward “shopping local” this upcoming holiday season to help rebuild our communities.


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Amanda MacArthur

Amanda MacArthur is the CEO of BuzzFarmers. Before BuzzFarmers, Amanda ran the research arm of a publishing company for magazine publishers where she was hired to teach blogging and social media workshops to editors at Harvard, F + W, Time Inc. Condé Nast, Dwell Media and Bonnier.
  • Daniel

    I wanted to punch all of those companies yesterday but next week people will be making jokes about it. You just need to know when the “too soon” moment is which isn’t quite yet.

    • anon

      I don’t think there’s ever going to be an OK time to joke about this but then again there are 9/11 jokes out there.

      • Daniel

        yep!

    • http://www.buzzfarmers.com/ @amaaanda

      Good points, but there’s no race to the “too soon” line, that’s for sure!