August 31, 2011

Marketing strategy post-disaster: No one likes a sore-winner.

The corner of Sixth and Spring looked sad on Monday without the Coffee Guys.

On the Monday morning following Hurricane Irene, I committed heresy:  I bought coffee from the cart vendor across the street…NOT from My Guys.  I had no choice…for the first time in 9 years My Guys weren’t there, and abstaining from coffee seemed a foolish allegiance that would merely leave me thirsty, caffeine-deprived, and yet still unsure of their safety.

So, I crossed the street with a heavy heart…and thus began my lesson in dog-eat-dog, post-hurricane marketing tactics.

This “understudy” vendor was aggressively courting all his newfound customers, and enjoying every moment of it.  Kudos to him for recognizing an opportunity (“I no see you here before…happy to meet you”)…and shame on him for crossing the line (“You come here ONLY from now on, yes?…This best coffee in neighborhood, no one else good.”).  I walked away with no promises, unsurprised to hear him tell the next woman in line that she is his “prettiest customer of all time,” …as I apparently was just a moment ago.

Later, as I sat at my desk reflecting on the cutthroat nature of the NYC coffee cart vendor industry (and now vowing coffee abstinence until the Guys return), the post-hurricane promotional email blasts from undamaged hotels in the Northeast started piling up in my in-box.   And the parallels to Mr. Coffee Understudy’s tactics – but on a much grander scale – were startling.

Essentially, the intended message to consumers was the same:  despite the sensational news reports of widespread flooding and damage in the Northeast, our hotel was undamaged and we are open for business this Labor Day weekend and beyond.   But the strategies used to actually communicate that message were vastly different…and not one of them reflected well on the image of its hotel.  The reason?  No one likes a sore winner.

It’s totally understandable that hotels open for business don’t wish to be painted with the same “devastation brush” the media has loosely applied to the Northeast…especially now, when the high occupancy weeks of summer, Labor Day weekend, and fall foliage season make the stakes so high.  But if you find your property in this situation, here are some tips for that email blast to prevent you from looking like an uncaring ogre trying to capitalize on others’ misfortune:

Timing:  wait until the initial outpouring of sympathy and drama has passed before sending ANY promotional emails out.

Tone:  you can’t express believable compassion for the victims alongside a cheerful offer of a “3rd night free with extended pool hours”…the crass jumble of emotions just screams “all’s fair in love and marketing.”  Be appropriately respectful and less blatantly promotional.

Humor:  does not belong in ANY post-disaster marketing communication.  More than one Northeast property created a “Weakend Guest” package or message, which is a clever play on words likely not appreciated by the thousands of people who suffered severely by this storm’s strength.

Incentives:  what should your call to action be in this case?  True, bookings are always a goal, but given the situation, is this really the right message for this particular promotional blast?  Perhaps your first outreach should be clarification of facts – you are open, you sustained no damage, you feel fortunate, and your heart goes out to your less fortunate neighbors. 

Grace and Class:  being promotional and pushing incentives is bad enough on its own…actually referring to your devastated competitors shows extremely poor taste.  Messages along the lines of  “Vermont got slammed, but we here in Maine are open for business and the sun has never been brighter!” really cast you as a villain.

You would be smart to anticipate that your current reservations for the next few weeks may be at risk…but the best way to solidify them is to speak directly to those guests.  Send them an email, give them a call…whatever.  Just give them the facts:  their reservation is safe, the roads are open (are they?…provide alternate directions if necessary), and their vacation is ready for their arrival.

After the initial drama of the disaster has subsided, you can always trawl for new customers, just like you always would.  Then, at that time, no mention of the disaster is necessary.  Just make sure enough time has passed before you start kicking up your cheery tone.

Here in NYC, Redpoint  weathered Hurricane Irene unscathed, though we are working round-the-clock on crisis response right alongside some of our Northeast hospitality clients who were less fortunate.  We’re delighted to report that overall, our clients are a hearty bunch of New Englanders who gracefully take their licks and are eager to get back in the game.

And now that our Coffee Guys have returned to their corner (safe and sound, thank goodness), the gang here at Redpoint is all fueled up and ready to help them do that. 

One thought on “Marketing strategy post-disaster: No one likes a sore-winner.

  1. Hi Chris,
    Thank you for sharing your expertise in this area, as this is an unusual (thankfully) environment for us to be marketing. Certainly we all need to ensure our guests and potential guests that we are open and ready to welcome them; yet we should be sensitive to the devastating losses that our fellow Vermonters have sustained. Your blog posting reminded us there is a right way and definitely a wrong way to create a marketing strategy during this disaster. As always I appreciate your ideas and advice. Glad to hear that Redpoint weathered the storm without incident. Please let us know if we can assist any of your Vermont hospitality clients.