Brands in crisis

There is crisis happening all around us in the world. In the past three months alone, the United States experienced 3 major hurricane-related disasters, the country’s worst mass shooting, and one of the deadliest California wildfires.

Businesses, advocacy organizations, and non-profits grapple with how they should leverage advertising in times like these. Should they take a public stance? Should they promote the work they’re doing? Should they ask for donations?

In some cases, your organization will feel compelled to be top-of-mind during times of crisis. Having your brand be visible during these times can either affirm your company’s role in addressing major challenges, or it can result in the negative brand perception that you’re exploiting people’s suffering.

So, when is it appropriate for your brand to be present during times of crisis? Here’s a guide for corporate brands, non-profit organizations, and advocacy organizations to follow when faced with this question.

Corporate brands:
use your power for good, not for sales

You’re a corporation providing money or resources to a specific crisis through your partnership with an aid organization. For example, Lowe’s providing money and hardware to families affected by Hurricane Harvey and Irma in partnership with the American Red Cross.

 What you should NOT do:

  • Do NOT run an ad patting yourself on the back for the work you’re doing while the crisis is still very much in effect.
  • Do NOT run an ad or program that gives a % of what people spend at your stores towards the cause. Wanting people to spend money shopping before you give money screams of greedy capitalism. Just go ahead and give the charity organizations some dang money.

 What you could do:

  • You can use those marketing budgets to promote the aid organization you’re working with – go ahead and use some product placement or say the ad was brought to you by X company – but let the purpose of the ad be promoting your non-profit partner.
  • You can promote a specific fund that people should donate towards – your brand will lend it additional credibility – and offer to match everyone’s donations. Walmart is doing this to support victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
  • You can run an ad after the crisis has reached a stage where things are under control and it’s all on the up-and-up. At this time, you can share what your company did to help, and how your company will also be there in all future times of need.
    • But wait until things are in a good place before doing that, please.

Aid organizations directly addressing the crisis:
you can advertise, but do it right.

You’re a government or non-government aid agency that sprung to immediate action and is directly helping communities and victims impacted by the crisis.

 What you should do:

  • Go ahead and advertise that people can donate to your organization to help people affected by the crisis. In times of need, people want to give and are often not sure where to turn to. Advertising can help put your organization front-of-mind (which is okay even if it feels a bit slimy).
  • But you must do a few things:
    • Your organization must truly be working on this specific crisis in these communities. Don’t be shady about this.
    • Make it clear and easy how a viewer can donate.
    • Make it clear what their money will help to achieve (focus on the positive, not just the negative).
    • Emphasize what you’re already doing to help and not just on the desperation of the situation.

In essence, your ad should state what you’re currently doing to help people in this crisis, and how additional donations can help you do more of it.


Advocacy organizations working on issues related to the crisis:
this could be a good time, but feel it out.

You’re an organization that gets things done through advocacy – such as lobbying and mobilizing for gun control, climate change legislation, etc.

 What you could do:

  • If your advocacy causes line up with the crisis at hand, then it could be an opportunity to solicit wider support. But you really need to feel it out based on how the general public is reacting to the crisis. In some cases, people want to channel their grief into actions but are not sure how to do that.

 What you should NOT do:

  • Don’t use this situation to disparage people or parties who haven’t made change yet. Instead, use this time to mobilize people who want to create change, and give them a way to make a difference.

Non-profit and Advocacy organizations working on causes UNRELATED to the current crisis:
it’s best if you stay quiet for a bit.

You’re a non-profit, charity, or advocacy organization that is focused on a specific set of causes, none of which are directly related to the crisis at hand.

 What you should NOT do:

  • Do NOT co-opt a crisis for your own cause if it’s not perfectly related and if your organization isn’t actively working on related solutions. Yes, people may be in a giving mood during these times, but that does not mean they want to give to just anyone. They want to give to organizations solving the problems at hand. And if you don’t fit in that category, then don’t ask them to switch their minds and support your cause.

 What you should do:

  • GO DARK on hard-hitting advocacy messages you are already running when a crisis hits. Yes, that means turn OFF your advertising that is asking people to take action or give money to your cause during the 1-2 weeks when a crisis is at its hottest. This does two things:
    • Creates less clutter so the organizations that need people’s attentions are more likely to get it.
    • Avoids your brand from leaving a bad impression for promoting a cause this is not top of mind for people right now.

Going dark will not result in a great loss for your organization and is the appropriate thing to do during times of crisis.

 What you could do:

  • If you have a partner or connection with an organization that is working on the crisis, then go ahead and promote what they’re doing and encourage people to give to them. That is true altruism and it will benefit the organization and your brand.

When crises happen, it is jarring for everyone. Making business and marketing decisions during these times can feel uncertain and confusing. Use the above list as a starting point, but the final decision should be made based on what feels most appropriate. Move towards helping people the most during times of need, and move away from anything that represents exploitation.


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