Brands that want to benefit from disaster should think twice
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Brands can get it right on social media. Or they can get it very, very wrong. And there’s no worse time to get it wrong than during a natural disaster.

Claiming mindspace worldwide, as it’s bound to, a calamity like an earthquake or huge storm, pushes out all thoughts of soft beauty soap, trendy men’s watches, the newest power-packed smartphone, or fashionable T-shirts. Netizens are swept up in a maelstrom of feeling for the effected people and are too busy spotting and spreading news, offering support or generally exchanging theories on what happened. The last thing they want is marketing messages thrown at them.

Meanwhile, the social media and marketing departments of socially active brands are not on holiday. Someone’s in trouble if daily targets are not met and enouh leads are not generated. So there’s nothing for it but to ride piggyback on whatever’s trending, even if it’s a devastating calamity. As far as possible, use the trending keyword to get a leg up.

That’s what Lenskart, online seller of eyewear, did when it tried to catch the wave of the day’s trending topic – in this case, the 7.9 earthquake in Nepal and parts of India – and squeeze in a bit of promotion. Bad move. Lenskart sent out an SMS asking people to “Shake it off like this earthquake” and buy some Vincent Chase sunglasses for Rs 500 by inviting friends. Landing right in the thick of news pouring in about the earthquake and continuing aftershocks, the message stuck out like a sore thumb, offensive, insensitive, and in extremely poor taste.

Disgusted Twitter users began demanding an explanation from the @lenskart.com Twitter handle, which was being used mostly for customer complaints. Initially, repeated tweets elicited no response from Lenskart. As the momentum of outraged tweets began to gather, Lenskart was asked to have the grace to apologise. At some point, it did, claiming the choice of words were “accidental.” The pressure eased off, but no one was fooled about the connection between a devastating earthquake and trendy sunglasses being anything but intentional.

The Lenskart fiasco barely ebbed when another tasteless tweet made an appearance, this time from American swimwear brand, American Swan which made an “earth shattering” offer of 55% off.  Such messages, leveraging disasters, have happened before. The brand American Apparel came up with a sale during the Sandy storm, using the promo “SandySale”. Living Social did something similar.

While it’s true that brands who make blunders like these may get a lot of publicity, the time when negative publicity is as good as positive publicity or better than no publicity at all, is quickly passing. Brands get punished relentlessly on social media, whether they happen to be people, governments, corporates, or startups. In China, companies have paid to have their negative digital footprints erased as online reputation becomes more and more critical.

It isn’t just during natural disasters that brand blunders can be damaging to reputation. Remember the Malaysian Airlines MH370 crash and the silence, online and otherwise, from the management. The airline hasn’t quite recovered from that even today. When an Air Asia flight crashed recently the company handled online presence far better, turning their logo a somber grey to reflect the emotion of the moment – doubt, anxiety and confusion over what had happened to the aircraft.

When disaster strikes, it’s time for senior management to wake up and keep a close watch on what is being put out from its online properties. Any attempt to cash in on the events happening is only too obvious and so, best avoided. Rather than causing offence and disgust, one might argue that it’s best to stay silent. On the other hand, brands have been known to come out of a natural disaster having gathered customer admiration and trust. Messages of genuine empathy, delivered elegantly and with care, are important at such a time. Even better is a program of extending help. This is something tech giants and social networks themselves are learning fast. While news of the Nepal quake was still coming in, Google set up its people finder. Facebook put in a new notification section focused around the quake, making a sort of dashboard where users could check which of their friends were in the area of the earthquake and reassuring themselves that they were safe.

To be seen as trying to benefit from a disaster that has impacted the lives of so many people can’t but hurt a brand. On blundering into the social stream with messages that obviously are causing outrage, the last thing to do is not respond. An instant apology From Lenskart would have gone down better. And a genuine one that doesn’t sound like a politician’s apology would have won the company some support. 

BLUNDERING INTO DISASTER

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