Four tips for marketing around natural disasters

Puerto Ricans are praying for relief after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, leaving a trail of destruction and a cloud of uncertainty for the residents of the island and six other Caribbean nations. It comes in the wake of two other hurricanes that left thousands homeless in Texas and Florida. Just days after Maria, three earthquakes hit Mexico, leaving hundreds dead and toppling dozens of buildings. With such great needs, many individuals and companies have gotten to work responding with urgently needed resources and donations.

Corporate philanthropy, while highly valued by both customers and employees, is often also a marketing strategy. If done correctly, it helps boost a company’s image and bottom line. If done wrong, it can backfire and become a net negative for the company.

During the recent response to the disasters, a friend of mine who runs a technology review website created a campaign to donate $5 to Hurricane relief efforts for every review written on their site until a certain date. Although well intentioned, a user called him out on the campaign suggesting he was capitalizing on the tragedy. He responded:

“Our intentions were all positive but I wondered if we missed the mark and put something out there that was completely tasteless with our brand on it. Michael E. Porter‘s shared value framework posits that when companies align KPIs with societal benefits it’s more impactful than blind philanthropy because the value compounds. As entrepreneurs we face time and resource scarcity but also want to do our part to give back. Many of us try to find ways to do both at the same time. I think there is intrinsic value in giving unconditionally but I believe that finding creative ways to maximize social benefit is also good in itself.”

A similar but opposite approach came from American Airlines, who offered customers 10 AAdvantage Points for every dollar donated to the American Red Cross. United Airlines offered MileagePlus® members who donated a minimum of $50 to any of their charitable partners up to 1,000 bonus miles. Facebook and Google took a more mainstream approach matching up to $1 million in donations raised through its platform.


While the ethics of any of these campaigns can be up for debate, the ends often justifies the means. Yet there are some blatant offenders when it comes to disaster response. If you remember back to Superstorm Sandy, American Apparel offered a “Sandy Sale” saying in their ads: “In case you’re bored during the storm, 20 percent off everything for the next 36 hours.” Urban Outfitters followed suit sending a mass email that read “This Storm Blows, But Free Shipping on All Orders Doesn’t.” joined the fun, with an online ad that read “Every cloud has a silver lining” and offering 20% off with promo code “Sandy.”


Keep these four tips in mind when it comes to marketing around natural disasters:

  1. When disaster strikes, pause your current marketing campaigns. You never want to hit someone with an email or online ad screaming happy times when they just lost their home in a flood.
  2. Be authentic. Shy away from the overused “Our thoughts are with [insert victims]” and speak more genuinely. Know your audience. A sympathy post may seem opportunistic if not done correctly.
  3. Think through any response or recovery campaign. Get a diverse crowd in the conference room to view it from different angles and perspectives.
  4. Lastly, if it doesn’t feel right, don’t proceed with the campaign. It’s often better not to do any response than to do it incorrectly. There’s no net neutral when it comes to marketing around disasters.