Shop Talk: Tips for Marketing Following a Disaster or Tragedy

Lois Brayfield, president and chief creative officer, J. Schmid & Assoc.

Q: “We have have many catalog customers located in the Newtown, Connecticut area. We posted some condolences on Facebook, but what are some best practices about marketing to people in this area going forward? Should we hold off on sending catalogs there for a while? Is a direct mailing appropriate?” — Angela Sanchez, creative director, NLC Products

A: When natural disasters or widespread tragedies occur, how should marketers respond? It’s a good question, and every brand should create a protocol or at least plan on reacting quickly when such an incident occurs. Consider the following two perspectives: one, what’s best for your customers and, two, what constitutes best marketing practices?

On the first, the reality is that your brand really doesn’t matter to customers or prospects affected by tragedy or disaster. Unless your product or service provides them immediate emotional or physical relief, it will never be top of mind or even a passing thought. Ever. It really doesn’t matter if you mail them or not. And if you do, your materials will quickly be trashed or ignored without a second thought … if the mail reaches them at all.

Many brands might be tempted to send out messages of condolence either directly or via social media outlets. Even if your message cuts through their personal “fog,” customers might easily interpret it as insincere or, worse yet, pandering. However, if your brand genuinely aligns itself with compassion, then a message might be readily accepted. If you truly want to make a difference, the best message is to actually send help to the affected area. Actions always speak much louder than words.

For the second perspective — marketing best practices — chances are the percentage of customers actually affected is very small within the context of your overall database. The effort, both in time and money, isn’t likely worth the exercise to purge those names from your mailing. However, if the percentage is large enough to justify the cost, then by all means purge away. In the case of a large geographic area, such as the Gulf Coast affected by Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Post Office isn’t likely to deliver anyway. Your printer should proactively alert you to these situations and then work with you on what to do with excess quantities.

One last database point to consider: Be sure not to prematurely move customers affected by a natural disaster or tragedy to a nonresponse segment, therefore cutting future marketing efforts short. Just because they won’t respond during a time of tragedy doesn’t mean they won’t re-engage at a later date.

Lois Brayfield is the president of J.Schmid & Assoc., a multichannel marketing consulting firm. Lois can be reached at

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