The Press, September 2010

Thoughts of marketing were far from my mind the Saturday morning before last, as I clung to a door jamb for dear life. As the terror faded, and the devastation has emerged, it has been interesting to see what effect the disaster has had on organisation’s brands.

Really? Who cares about marketing mumbo-jumbo like a brand at a time like this?

Companies should, as your brand remains important because they help people choose your product over another, and damaging it in times of crisis can hurt you in the long term.

This is not a brand in the superficial sense in terms of logos, advertising, jingles, brochures and signs. A brand is all those things, but a lot more. It is the picture each of us holds in our heads about certain products, services and companies – a picture we use when it comes to buying. It is a much more complex and deeper thing than a few adverts and a nice logo.

Canterbury’s earthquake has been a huge opportunity for companies to damage their brands. When people are in pain they are hyper-sensitive to anyone trying to take advantage of them or lacking empathy to their situation. A company or individual’s reputation can be ruined as quickly as some of the city’s houses and commercial buildings.

Particularly vulnerable are insurance companies. We see them as a necessary evil most of the time, but when the crisis comes we watch them very carefully. Any hint of not delivering has the potential to really harm their reputation.

The closest an insurance brand has come is a minor controversy over AMI not accepting any new policies from the Canterbury region at the moment, according to an article in The Press. What at first blush seemed unfair was probably more a sensible business practice required at such a crazy time.

Contact Energy has less excuse for their behaviour, according to another report in Christchurch’s main newspaper. A reader complained after calling Contact Energy to ask them to turn off the power to her destroyed hairdressing shop. At first they insisted the meter needed to be read first, and when they realised it was buried under a pile of rubble said it would charge the lady a $40 disconnection fee instead. Nice!

Another brand that must have taken a hit during the crisis is the Unite union. While most employers have bent over backwards to accommodate their employees, even though it is costing them, and the government is providing extremely generous back-up funding, the union still went public with complaints.

“John Key will bail out property owners and big business using state cash but who will help out the thousands of low paid Christchurch workers who have lost jobs and incomes because of the quake? Key should provide instant cash relief to Christchurch’s struggling working population,” Matt Jones of the Unite Union said in press release.

An embarrassing statement when the government has already committed millions of dollars (including $15 million in wage subsidies alone) to helping both workers and companies in the region! It is clear the Unite union see the crisis as a good opportunity for gaining publicity for themselves, rather than being genuinely committed to helping Canterbury recover.

These are exceptions to an overwhelmingly positive story though.

Building strong brands is all about exceeding your customer’s expectations, and many people and companies have done that in the earthquake’s aftermath.

The reputation of the Christchurch City Council has got a huge boost. Not only has Mayor Bob Parker done an impressive job in leading the city, the staff of the authority have done an incredible job in restoring essential services to the city quickly. It is testament to their skills and also to the infrastructure they have built.

On a commercial front there have been many impressive gestures. Telecom made pay phones and many wireless internet hotspots free of charge in the city. Telstra has advertised that they are happy to talk about delaying bill payments for affected businesses and people. Fonterra donated the use of milk tankers for the distribution of water. Even the insurers are getting in the act – in the carpark of my local supermarket State Insurance had set up a mobile office to help people make claims.

At the other end of the commercial world, there have been incredible stories of small businesses donating goods and services. From the Hoon Hay dairy giving away milk to needy people to the apparel company giving raincoats to affected children, many businesses have done a lot to exceed expectations and strengthen their brand.

What has also been pleasing has been the restraint in promotions. I have been waiting for some cringe-inducing advertisements from companies keen to cash in on the crisis. I am still waiting. Companies seem to be using advertising as intended – to communicate important information to their customers in this stressful time.

Canterbury’s crisis seems to have bought out the best in people both locally and nationally, and this has extended to marketing. Many organisations have strengthened their brand by performing when it has mattered the most.

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