Natural Disaster Marketing 101

Marketing During a Natural Disaster

When a natural disaster strikes, one of the first things to happen is the 24-hour news cycle clogs the airwaves with stories of total misery and destruction, usually with specialized theme music and graphics. These hand-wringing, anxiety-inducing stories choke the airwaves for about 24-48 hours before and during a natural disaster.

In the 72 hours that follow, the stories of human grit and perseverance fill the spaces in an attempt to frame the situation as “all better” and “life is good.” It’s the “Tragedy Formula,” or emotional manipulation, whichever you’d like to call it, and marketers know this.

From the first whiff of a natural disaster, Marketers get to work and think, “How can I take advantage of this situation? How can I sell more of my stuff and is there any customer loyalty or good PR vibes to get out of this situation?”

It’s what Marketers do; we’re trained to take advantage of an opportunity.

Grabbing an opportunity with an audience who’s actively paying attention is why so many people own Shamwow’s and Ronco Rotisserie Ovens.

Marketers took advantage of insomniacs and pushed irresistible products to sleep-deprived souls all across the world. It worked like a charm driving low investment, high reward products to people whose ability to make a rational buying decision was eroded by a lack of sleep. Brilliant, right?

(for the record, not all Marketers take advantage of people in a weakened decision-making state but there are those who’ve definitely earned the “bad rap”)

Ronco Rotisserie Infomercial

BUT, there are different boundaries for marketing during or just after a natural disaster that don’t apply to other situations.

Some boundaries are logistically imposed (like power and internet access), others are highly emotional and very, very personal.

Tread lightly, marketers.


Ground Rules for Marketing During/After a Natural Disaster

Important note: Your targeting will absolutely change during a situation like a hurricane. It’s not enough for marketers to dust off their personas and customize messaging and geotargeting for this particular disaster. You need to go deeper and do better.[nbsp_tc]



1. Get some empathy and be a human.

Put your “OMG ROI opportunity!” hat away. Place yourself in the shoes of those who are directly affected by the event.

2. Take stock of changing emotional states.[nbsp_tc]

Emotions run high during a natural disaster. People are typically more anxious, overwhelmed, experience unpredictable reactions, and can be more sensitive to environmental factors.

The experience is extremely stressful. Understanding the emotional state of your customers will inform the tone and voice you use in your messaging.


3. Expect radical changes in your Buyer’s Journey.

Your customers are thinking about anything and everything; the people and possessions they left behind, what’s currently happening, what could occur in the future, what’s the worst-case scenario they need to plan for, etc.

Stress alters the way people weigh risk and reward and their decision-making processes, focusing on “resource decisions” such as acquiring food, safety, and survival goods. Once people ensure the physical security of family members, thought processes can drift, become erratic and dramatically different than what they usually experience and express.

Throw your Buyer’s Journey out the window and look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, focusing on the bottom of the pyramid, instead.

A good rule of thumb; if what you’re selling doesn’t fall into the “Psychological Needs” and “Safety Needs” part of the pyramid, sit out this marketing opportunity.


4. Evaluate current and near-term customer resources.

People affected by a natural disaster may have access to computers, TV and internet access (at the beginning of the event, if they evacuated). Once they return to their homes, they may not have running water, power, access to fuel, may not have internet access, and only have their phones which may or may not have data and voice services. It may even be dangerous or impossible to travel short distances.

They may not be able to receive USPS, FedEx or UPS deliveries, so if you’re selling something that is needed, but has to ship and deliver, requires internet access or power, again, you may want to sit this one out unless you can figure out a way to perform in dangerous conditions. Loss of resources can last for weeks depending on the severity of the disaster.

(My family “glamped” in our house for three days without power. Board games and kitchen cabinet cleaning totally happened during daylight hours. We didn’t travel within our greater community due to downed power lines and the danger of trees and limbs falling.)


How NOT to Market Your Products and Services During a Natural Disaster

(alternatively titled, “Don’t be a Self-Serving Douchebag”)

Remember, tensions and emotions are running high.

People directly and peripherally affected may be oversensitive, and they’re likely stressed out.[nbsp_tc]

Here are some examples of what not to do when you want to push your products and services to those affected by a natural disaster.

Selling ANYTHING with the Promo Code “HURRICANE.”

Don’t be this guy. Just…. no, don’t do it. It doesn’t matter how thankful you are that you dodged getting hit by a hurricane, it doesn’t give you license to be an ass about it.

This super-sleazy newsjacking tactic is nauseating. As someone who was directly impacted by a natural disaster, it’s downright offensive.

Realtors Promoting Increases in Property Values.

I did hide the name of this company. Why? They’re local, were directly impacted by the hurricane and to be frank, they probably had some low-level manager or out of town agency running the campaign and, simply, forgot to turn it off.

Still, it’s a poorly timed and douchey move. The people targeted by the ad, let them know exactly what they thought about the campaign.

Pushing Golf Vacations in a FEMA Disaster Area

Of the 40+ large golf courses in my area, many of them won’t be playable for some time. That’s what happens when 100-year old oak trees meet hurricane-force winds and land on the greens, turning your short game into a challenging mini-golf dare. Shit gets dorked up fast, and FEMA gets called in to help with the cleanup and restoration.

Unfortunately, this didn’t stop companies from pushing golf vacation packages on the very day the hurricane hit.

It would be understandable if these were local companies who, in a rush to evacuate, simply forgot to turn off their Adwords campaigns, but these are national companies who should know better.

In 60 days (a pretty standard booking pace for a vacation) the situation may be a little different and some courses may be playable but when a Category 2 rolls up the east side of the island you’re promoting, it’s tacky and borderline deceptive to promote these vacations.


How to Market Your Products and Services the RIGHT Way During a Natural Disaster

Duracell PowerForward Program

Duracell activated their PowerForward truck fleet up and down the Southeastern coast, distributing batteries and offering to charge cell phones. For people who are in shelters or who don’t have power, this is a valuable offering and an excellent way to support communities affected by a natural disaster.

This single post alone had over 1300 comments, 4700 shares, and 19,000 reactions.

Social media engagement? Yeah, they got it.

You can learn more about Duracell’s PowerForward Program here

Verizon and AT&T

Both Verizon and AT&T waived data, text and talk limits for their customers during Hurricane Matthew. They also pushed notifications to Facebook and sent text messages to customers to grab as much awareness as possible.

If a company can be relevant, needed, and alleviate even a single worry during a time of need, they’re doing a good thing.

The last thing people want to worry about is having to cough up more money at the end of the month to cover their data overages when their friends and family are burning up their phone to make sure everyone is okay.

Southwest Airlines

While not directly supporting hurricane relief efforts, Southwest Airlines took to social media to get the attention of their directly impacted customers (and potential customers).

Southwest didn’t try to sell flights or vacations to these areas; instead, they stayed true to their core brand promise and focused on their customers. They gave pertinent information and then stayed out of the media mess.[nbsp_tc]

Home Depot Retargeting

Home Depot has a retargeting program that’s pretty sweet. I’ve been stalked all over the interwebs by Home Depot ads and products.

I looked at generators while we were sitting in a hotel room, pondering what our daily lives would be like when we returned, so I wasn’t surprised to see a retargeting ad after I left the site.

The only thing I would add to this retargeting campaign is an inventory control message or trigger – sadly, these generators were sold out at the Home Depot closest to our evacuation hotel.

During a time of immediate, high demand, it’s smart to promote needed products (and profitable if they’re a high ticket item like a generator) but it’s a waste of money to retarget products that aren’t currently in stock.

The American Red Cross

(note: your feelings about the Red Cross are not the point of this example. If you feel strongly about not donating to a particular organization because of management practices or for any other reason, that’s fine. The point of this example is about breaking down barriers and ease of use.)

Between setting up shelters, organizing blood drives and supporting affected communities, the American Red Cross does an outstanding job raising funds by making it stupid easy to donate.

Donate $10 with a single text message – something your teenager can do in about 5 seconds.

A brilliant fundraising technique for a non-profit followed up by retargeting, display and social media support messaging, working in tandem to keep the emotions and empathy high by people unaffected or peripherally affected.

There’s something to be said for “Keep it Simple, Stupid.”

You can learn more about American Red Cross Donation, Support, and Training programs here.

I’m sure there are more examples of great marketing and downright douchey marketing tactics but, as someone who is still cleaning up two weeks later, I’m focused on trying to get my life back to “normal” as quickly as possible.

A final note about marketing during a natural disaster:

Save your “thoughts and prayers,” there’s enough of that fluff floating around, and it does absolutely nothing for the people whose lives are disrupted.

If you’re affected by a natural disaster the first and only thing you truly want is for your life to get back to normal. If your product or service doesn’t help people get their lives back to normal, don’t participate. Save your time and cash and sit it out.

Be helpful, be responsive, be HUMAN and make it easy to redeem or participate in whatever marketing you choose to execute. Your customers will remember and thank you for it.

About the Author

CEO/Founder of Hunt Interaction. Since 2012, working to bring better class of marketer to the table. Outspoken, fierce customer advocate, believes your experience with outside marketing help should be positive, educational, and profitable.