In 1944, a deadly earthquake hit San Juan, Argentina killing over 10,000 people. Colonel Juan Peron, who up until then had played the “man-behind-the-man” role, took control of the relief efforts and quickly became a household name winning great admiration throughout the country in spite of his previous roles in the 1943 coup d’état and his close relationship with Mussolini. The kindness and resourcefulness he showed towards the people of San Juan during their time of need was not quickly forgotten and he served three terms as president with his last term in 1973 following almost 20 years in exile.

Disaster Marketing

Let’s call this extremely effective strategy “Disaster Marketing”. It entails leveraging an unfortunate event to springboard your brand into the hearts and minds of your target audience. But let’s be clear on the terms. This is not a ruthless, heartless, parasitic strategy. To be successful you must act in a way that is consistent with the needs of the situation. Say what you will about Peron, but his actions in San Juan weren’t just window dressing: it was real. He did a great job organizing the relief efforts and he did a great job organizing the press effort that accompanied it.

Disaster Marketing is a goldmine for the entrepreneur. It is ripe with emotion and buzzing with media looking for a hero. Care must be taken to avoid appearing as an opportunist, but approaching the situation from a place of genuine respect for the victims should keep you on the side of morality.

Why it Works

I’ve often heard about the concept of a “relational bank account” that compares an interpersonal relationship to a savings account. Positive interactions are “deposits” and negative interactions are “withdrawals”. Resilient relationships are those that have had a regular history of positive deposits. Relationships like this can absorb the occasional negative withdrawal without destroying the relationship. So, if I forget to pick up the dry cleaning my wife doesn’t immediately call the divorce attorney. Such minor withdrawals happen all the time. I may leave my dishes on the table or my socks on the floor or perhaps I wear a dirty shirt to a party causing mild embarrassment. They are all taken in stride because my positive deposits far outweigh negative withdrawals.

You can easily extend the metaphor to business relationships. Positive deposits occur when the app works or the food taste great or the service is efficient. Negative withdrawals occur when you’re waiting on hold or the Internet is slow or the waiter is rude. If I love my Mac then I may be willing to tolerate the occasional quip from the arrogant Genius Bar technician. However, if the company makes enough withdrawals I may defect at the first practical opportunity.

Major disasters are accompanied by major deposits or major withdrawals depending on who did what. Those who cause the events make the major withdrawals while those who assist those in need make the major deposits.

A slow Internet connection is one thing, but what if I’m an oil company that has been slowly raising my prices over the past couple of years and then I break an oil well and spew thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico?
When this kind of thing happens companies are often slow to react and choose their words carefully, being sure not to take responsibility for too much in order to avoid becoming legally obligated. Every minute that goes by is a major withdrawal from the collective emotional bank account it has with the world.

They dig an enormous emotional hole.

Eventually they get to work filling it up by doing what people expect or demand. They start cleaning up the oil and flying in engineers to look at the well and compensating local businesses and cleaning off hapless oil-soaked fowl.

All of this effort buys them loads of good will. They are making unbelievable deposits into the emotional bank account. Unfortunately all those warm-fuzzies are going to fill the emotional pit left by their withdrawal.

Eventually, however, they will refill the hole and it will be back to business as usual. Exxon did it, BP did it and the next big oil company will do it too.

When the people of the world were pointing fingers, companies distanced themselves from BP and BP’s problems.

Collateral Opportunity

When the world is emotionally-charged around an issue—positively or negatively—they are really paying close attention to it. While BP scrambled to make things right all the other oil companies tried to stay clean. However, what would have happened if they, too, stepped up to the plate and assumed responsibility for someone else’s problem?

Let’s say that in the normal course of business the bank account is neutral—a zero balance. All the oil companies are viewed more or less the same by all consumers. When BP pops a cap in the Gulf they dug a hole. Let’s pretend their account with the world is now -100. They will spend billions getting back to zero.

But wait! Exxon Mobil is at zero too. If they can distance themselves from the disaster they might stay at zero if they don’t lose a few brownie points for being in the same industry. If they chose to step in and say, “we are part of the industry and we will play our part in the clean-up.” Then they could get to work cleaning the flora and fauna, compensating business owners and making TV appearances.

Like Peron, it could’ve made some deposits into the emotional bank account that would last a lifetime. Have you checked your company’s balance lately?