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September 05, 2005

Brands in Crisis

Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The previously unimaginable scenes of destruction, suffering and despair that have filled our TV screens during the past week will have a lasting impact on our national psyche. At least one can hope they will. Katrina clearly exposed the dangerous flaws in our country's post-9/11 crisis preparedness capabilities, as well as the inadequacy of America's coastal flood control and conservation efforts. But, the disaster also laid bare basic flaws in our national priorities -- e.g., how the world's richest and most powerful country actually treats its most vulnerable citizens.

One of the bitterest of the many bitter truths that Hurricane Katrina revealed is that Brand USA is in crisis. And, as with any brand, whether it be a product, a service, an individual, or an entire nation, preserving, protecting and sustaining that brand requires tangible efforts and real action. Not just words and promotion.

This blog is supposed to be focused on marketing (especially performance in marketing). As such, I will leave the discussions about rebuilding Brand USA to others. But, I do think it's instructive to consider what happens to business brands in a crisis. Certainly, this is where marketing comes into play. Yet, there are larger things at work, too.

What businesses (and their brands) do, and don't do, during a crisis defines them in lasting ways. And not all of them good. The actions and reactions of those businesses and brands reflect, more than anything, their true values. That is critically important for a business, because brands ultimately are built on values and the relationships driven by those values.

So, what kind of business brand values have been on display, and can we expect to see, in the wake of this monumental disaster and crisis that will effect the Gulf Coast for years to come? Well, Wal-Mart, a company that has had its share of PR problems, has shown that it is about more than just low prices and hugeness. It has shown a welcome human face by responding quickly to the calls for water and other supplies, even when government could not, or did not, respond in a timely manner. I also read a news account of Kellog sending several truck loads of food to the disaster zone. If corn flakes are on your shopping list in the future, which of the many available brands do you think you'll buy?

Today, there are so many opportunities for companies to show their brand values in positive and lasting ways. Here, totally unsolicited, are some of our suggestions:

--Coke and Pepsi: Water is now a big part of your business, and your profits. The Gulf Coast will need clean water for a long time. I sincerely hope your semi trucks loaded with bottled water are en route to the devastated Gulf Coast region.

--Starbucks: If I were Howard Schultz, I would immediately recruit two busloads of barristas and get them down to Biloxi, Bay St. Louis, New Orleans and Baton Rouge to give out coffee to the tired and stressed rescue workers, police officers, military personnel (and anyone else affected). There is nothing like a good cup of Starbucks coffee to perk you up in a tough moment.

--Visa, MaterCard and American Express: Which one of you will copy AmEx's bold stroke in the eighties to help restore the Statue of Liberty? I would donate a few cents from every credit card transaction during the next year to rebuild New Orleans, a city that earned a lot of card volume profits for those three payment brands. You can certainly afford it. In any event, the donations should be completely offset by the increased card usage by grateful cardholders across the country, and the world.

--Nike, Levis, Gap, Reebok, Abercrombie, J Crew and American Eagle (and other shoe/apparel brands): Our fellow citizens in the Gulf Coast left their homes with just the shirts on their backs, many without shoes. They desperately need clothes and sneakers for themselves and their children. Now is the time for you to show your values and drive a few truckloads to the Astrodome, Baton Rouge, Biloxi, etc.

--Halliburton: OK, so you've sustained more than a few black eyes in the Iraq war. Here is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate another side (the human side) of your company and brand. Why not offer to help rebuild infrastructure in the Gulf Coast (last I checked, you are based in Houston)? One would think you'd already set up mobile kitchens (on your dime) to feed our citizens who now have nothing left, and nothing to go home to.

--America's Oil Companies: Now, we know many of your Gulf region facilities were damaged or even destroyed by Katrina. But, your profits during the past few years have skyrocketed. This is a great opportunity to reinvest some of those profits in rebuilding the Gulf Coast cities destroyed by Katrina.

--America's Home Builders and Real Estate Companies: You've profited handsomely from the historic housing boom. People in the Guld Coast region will badly need temporary housing in the months ahead. Are your carpenters and project managers already moving to the affected areas to start building decent housing for our fellow citizens?

If any of the afore-mentioned companies are already doing some of the things we have suggested, you have our undying gratitude. If you are not, what are you waiting for?

Now is the time to show the world what your brand values stand for. When you do the right thing, people (your customers, stakeholders and shareholders) will respond.

Posted by Patrick at September 5, 2005 06:39 PM


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