How to Market to Disaster Victims

The fine art of promoting your disaster-recovery services without seeming like a jerk

Written by Lisa Shepherd

When the Great Flood hit Toronto July 8, it got me thinking about the tricky act of doing business after a disaster. Deborah Aarts, a PROFIT senior editor, was thinking the same thing and wrote a great column on whether companies should cash in on natural and human disasters.

As she wrote, entrepreneurs know that when there’s a problem, there’s an opportunity. So businesses of course think about how to make money when there’s a big problem like the floods that have struck Southern Alberta and the Toronto area. You can bet that the executives of every home-renovation company that operates in these areas is planning for a huge revenue boost this year.

The challenge for businesses isn’t whether they should profit from these situations, but how to do so without being perceived as predators.

One of the companies I work with at my B2B marketing agency is a transportation company that provides alternative logistics for businesses that have experienced a disruption in their normal supply routes. So, whenever there’s a train derailment, this transportation company flies into action. There have been a number of train derailments in the past month, so they wanted to know how their marketing should react.

Here’s the advice I gave them on how to promote their services without preying on the misfortune of others:

Don’t market aggressively and immediately when there is human tragedy involved: Marketing basement repair services in Toronto after the flood, where no one died, is reasonable. But aggressively marketing in Lac Mégantic, Que., where there has been such devastation and loss of life—the worst in any train derailment in Canada in almost 150 years—isn’t at all appropriate.

There will come a point when companies can and should market in a tragedy zone, but it’s important to gauge the local sentiment. Some communities move on quickly after a tragedy that involves loss of life—Calgary got back to work within a few days after the flood to prepare for the Stampede. Lac Mégantic, where the death toll was shocking, especially in such a small community, will likely take longer. Take the temperature of the local community before initiating any marketing initiatives.

Show care and concern: After a tragedy, people have a great need for resources as well as financial and emotional support. It’s important to show care and concern for those who have been affected. Companies can do that through tone and actions.

Some companies do things like setting up a disaster relief fund or donating employees’ time to volunteer for the cause. Others take more involved actions that leverage their particular assets and strengths. For example, Anheuser-Busch converted a large portion of its beer-making facilities to canning fresh water for the residents of Los Angeles after the earthquake in 1994 (as the company had done after the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906). The goodwill this generates for brands can last decades.

Don’t play dumb: Companies shouldn’t pretend that they aren’t marketing as a direct result of a particular disaster. Those who run ads or other types of direct marketing should call out the fact that many people have been affected by the event (be it a storm, flood, fire or explosion), that there is a need for their particular services and that they’re there to serve. A frank and simple message that doesn’t try to obscure the fact that there is work to be done (and that your company is able to do it) is far more effective than being coy.

The point of marketing after a disaster is to make others aware that your services exist and that you’re open for business. The intent isn’t to profit unduly from the loss of others, but to make available to them the services and products they need to recover from the situation. Companies have to strike a careful balance between promoting themselves and being seen as predatory. But that doesn’t mean you should stay mum when disaster strikes.

Lisa Shepherd is author of Market Smart: How to Gain Customers and Increase Profits with B2B Marketing and president of The Mezzanine Group, a business-to-business strategy and marketing company based in Toronto. She was the youngest female CEO of a PROFIT 200 company in 2007 and 2008 and is a frequent public speaker on B2B marketing strategy and execution.

More columns by Lisa Shepherd

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