Hurricane Sandy brings out the best (and worst) in advertisers

The Waffle House Index directs FEMA efforts.

Natural disasters bring out the best and worst in people. Hurricane Sandy was no exception, and neither were advertisers.

Their responses to Hurricane Sandy range all the way from being unofficial first responders to crass, tasteless, exploitative social media promotions.

The Good

A good many national brands not only came forward with generous relief after the storm; some were way ahead of the curve.

“Retailers have come to regard themselves as a sort of unofficial Red Cross, and this storm was no exception,” Marketing Daily reports. “[R]etailers didn’t even wait for the winds to die down before offering help. ”

For example:

  • Walmart – offered behind-the-scenes help to state relief agencies.
  • Sears – shipped portable generators and battery flashlights to East Coast locations.
  • Home Depot – prepositioned truckloads of generators, chainsaws, tarps, batteries, pumps, shop vacs, cleaning supplies and other recovery needs just outside the storm zone, ready to roll wherever needed as soon as safely possible.
  • Target – donated pillows, cribs and other basic items to local communities.
  • Walgreen – deployed 180 generators and tons of dry ice at pharmacies in the storm zone to preserve perishable medicines; offered local assistance to the Red Cross and other first responders.
  • Banks – “Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citi and TD Bank are among those waiving or refunding out-of-network ATM fees as well as late fees such as those on credit cards, auto loans and student loans for customers in many of the areas affected by the storm,” USA Today reports. [So is Chase.]  “Many banks are also offering branch services despite being affected by closures and power outages themselves…Some banks are also deploying mobile ATMs in areas that were particularly hard hit, such as lower Manhattan.”
  • Delta Airlines – is giving stranded passengers vouchers good for rescheduling flights at their own convenience. VP of operations control Dave Holtz told the New York Times that this is better for passengers than automatically bumping them to a flight of the airline’s choosing. (Personal observation: Delta’s normal system for rescheduling passengers booked on canceled flights is very good, but this is certainly even more considerate.)
  • Comcast – made free wifi available in areas with no connectivity.
  • Duracell – sent a Rapid Responder four-by-four truck with charging stations for mobile phones and other devices, along with computers with internet access, to (coincidentally, it turns out) Battery Park. Also sent out Duracell responders on foot to walk New York and New Jersey streets handing out free radio and flashlight replacement batteries.
  • Allstate – ran commercials before the storm telling policyholders how to file claims.
  • American Express – e-mailed cardholders offering “emergency financial, medical or travel assistance.”

The bad

While most advertisers were generally concerned with helping their communities, a few were concerned with helping only themselves:

  • Jonathan Adler – sent out an e-mail blast inviting consumers to “storm our site” and get free shipping by entering “code Sandy at checkout.”
  • American Apparel – tweeted about a “Hurricane Sandy Sale” for consumers “bored during the storm” – as opposed to those injured or left homeless – with checkout code “Sandysale.”
  • Gap – After pro forma wishes that customers “stay safe,” asked, “We’ll be doing lots of shopping today. How about you?” No, we’ll be fighting to (literally) keep our heads above water.
  • Urban Outfitters – sent out a bad-taste fart pun and offered free shipping with the checkout code “Allsoggy.”

The best

There’s one retailer whose natural-disaster relief efforts are so built into its business model that the Federal Emergency Management Administration has based one of its key metrics on it.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate relies on the “Waffle House Index” to know when and where relief efforts are most needed.

Green on the index means the local Waffle House is doing business as usual, which indicates damage in its area is, at most, limited. Yellow means a limited menu, which could be a sign of power outages and food shortages. Red means the Waffle House is closed, which signals severe damage, unsafe conditions, and a need for FEMA to move in.

This is because the 1,600 Waffle House restaurants throughout the Southeast make it a matter of business policy and marketing strategy to stay open when hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters  are shutting everything else down.

They truck in extra supplies, bring in extra manpower and arrange for temporary quarters and have limited menus planned for each contingency ready to go. Each location follows a written playbook covering what foods to cook when there’s gas but no electricity, or electricity but no ice. (For example: Keeping the hot coffee coming when the power’s out by grinding coffee beans in advance, then brewing them with huge pots of water brought to a boil on gas grills.)

Waffle House doesn’t advertise, and they lose more money than they make by providing a touch of normality in times of abnormal disaster. But they believe they make it up in community goodwill.

In other words, they do well by doing good.