Brand-building lessons to be learned from major disasters

Keep every customer promise, and then some — and do it with sincerity and humility

There are key lessons to be learned from this fall’s tragic natural disasters that can greatly enhance your brand, build your credibility with existing customers and attract new consumers. No matter if you’re an insurance company, a service provider or a corner grocery store, difficult times such as the recent hurricanes provided businesses with unique opportunities to stand up and be counted. It just took going a little further to serve customers and make a meaningful and memorable real difference when needed most.

Under dire circumstances — when everything seems to be going sideways — smart companies have an opportunity to distinguish themselves from the competition. Let’s use insurance companies as an example. Deep down, customers have the perception that the insurers’ first goal is to not pay a claim by always looking for loopholes. This is far from the truth, but perception is reality, particularly when people are at a low point.

During this unprecedented hurricane season, several insurance providers stood out by communicating that they were standing by to serve policyholders and quickly pay claims. This was well before the storms even made landfall. Some even established temporary field offices before the wind started howling and the first drops of rain fell. These savvy, proactive steps became a ray of sunshine for those fearing the worst.

Other examples were banks, power companies and scores of normally low-profile providers that announced that their customers should first worry about their families and themselves, not about being late with a payment during a crisis. The message was loud and clear: “We’re here for you when you need us most.”

On the flip side, there were unscrupulous opportunists that were immediately called out for price gouging. Most egregious was a franchisee convenient store that began selling cases of water, the lifeblood of a disaster, for more than $40 and a handful of shameless gas stations that were tripling and quadrupling fuel prices. Our system is self-healing in many respects and within hours of these transgressions both mainstream and social media called out these bad actors, and their reprehensible profit-taking techniques were reversed. One parent company of the offending franchisee immediately announced it was revoking the money-grubber’s franchise and began giving away water to make amends.

Those companies that acted responsibly, and then some, will reap future benefits because they kept their promises by putting the customer before one-time gains and/or looking for ways to avoid their responsibilities.

There are many ingredients in building a sustainable and successful brand. The main component, however, is doing what you say and saying what you do, but with sincerity and humility. Many claim customers have short-term memories, but those who are treated better than expected, particularly during adversity, become the brand’s staunchest spokespeople. Doing what a company is obligated to do anyway, and doing it before being asked, is key to owning customers. Warning: No chest thumping. You want consumers to know that exceeding expectations is just the way you always do business. This becomes the icing on your branding cake.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax and in 16-years, as CEO, grew the retailer to sales of $5 billion in 1,000 stores worldwide.