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Guest Article: Kishore Chakraborti: Commercialisation of disaster?

By Kishore Chakraborti , McCann Erickson, New Delhi | In Marketing | May 18, 2015
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Is it alright for brands to leverage a natural calamity to sell products, if charity is a byproduct?

In marketing, anything and everything in life can be an opportunity to sell and market products. Fear, violence, death, disaster are strong emotions. Spectacles of them shake people up from the slumber of inertia and inaction; therefore, marketers are tempted to leverage such occasions to sell their brands and products. How far exploiting the vulnerability of people is justified in the name of marketing, is debatable. Every big and small calamity has its own trail of marketing controversies. The recent Nepal disaster is no exception. Here are some of the insensitive uses of the disaster by brands:

LensKart, online eyewear seller, sent out SMSes that read, "Shake it off like this earthquake," offering recipients heavy discounts for referring friends. Online fashion retailer American Swan came along with an "Earth shattering offer" to its followers. Troika Consulting sought to hire people for its social media team if they had updated their status while evacuating the building during the quake.

Kishore Chakraborti

Users took to social media to shame the brands. "Cashing in on the earthquake to sell your sunglasses? What a warped sense of marketing, this!" "We came across posts, tweets and updates in bad taste, almost mocking the extremely tragic incident that shook Nepal." These were some of the responses. The companies were quick to apologise. LensKart used its blog to send out an apology. American Swan tweeted saying it was a lapse and that they apologise for it. "We empathise with the victims of the tragedy," read the tweet.

While these mercenary uses of disasters got well-deserved responses from people, there is a third kind of marketing usage of disasters. Here, philanthropy runs parallel with marketing. Freecharge is a mobile app that aims to become consumers' digital wallet. In the aftermath of the earthquake, they told their customers to give them missed calls from across the country, saying that they'd donate Rs. 20 per call ($0.30) to the victims of the quake.

Now, there are two schools of thought on mixing marketing with charity. One being that there should not be any hidden agenda under the veneer of charity; the other sees no wrong in it. If a brand wants to win and is also able to generate money for the disaster-affected people, why denounce it; especially in a country where common people are not very spontaneous when it comes to charity during such events. They think it is the government's responsibility; a certain section donates to the government relief fund and also to the funds mobilised by NGOs, but for many, donations are reserved for gods and religious places. In doing good to god, we negotiate with almighty goodies for us, both in cash and kind in this world and the world beyond.

Marketers say the importance of context is very vital for selling certain products, especially products which do not promise immediate benefits. Fire extinguishers, safety alarms, insurance and medical check-ups fall in this category. We are all mentally so insulated by our complacency that we refuse to believe the need for such products. The recent disaster has shaken many of us, reminding us about the vulnerabilities of our houses, household items and our lives. Now, if an insurance company talks about its products in the backdrop of the Nepal disaster, is it right or wrong?

"Make real-time the right time," says another marketing expert. As statistics of insurance companies show, there is a quantum jump in phone calls from would-be customers after every natural calamity, although a very small percentage of it is converted into actual sale. In India, a disaster prone country, not even 1 per cent of people who can afford insurance actually buy insurance cover. Even though all leading newspapers are writing articles about the importance of insurance, no major insurance company has run ads. Somebody could have easily argued that running a campaign would have been the right public service communication for insurance companies at this point of time. At least some people would have bought the policies as proactive measures against future disasters.

Media has a tricky job at this juncture. Their business model is to present spectacle in a more complete and compelling way and, thereby, earning readership/viewership. They need to walk the tight rope - but how much is too much? What to show, what to focus on and what to ask and present? While Indian Air Force planes were the first to land in Nepal with relief and supplies, the Nepalese were somewhat less-than-happy with the media grandstanding about what the Indian government is doing. Some even found faults with media channels who had managed to reach far-flung villages before the rescue and relief teams reached there.

Thrive Solar Energy ad

Some brands manage to strike the right balance. I quite like the Thrive Solar Energy portable lights ad which appeals on social networking sites to come forward and help earthquake victims in Nepal by buying their heavily discounted Solar LED Lights. They have also published a poster in which they mention that all their products are being sold at a highly discounted rate for a limited time only, so that people, institutions, organisations could buy them cheaper and help the victims. They had even offered to deliver products bought by customers to the official relief centers in Nepal. There is a forthrightness and honesty in the company's approach to selling its products.

People, especially the younger generation, are no fools; they have the ability to judge what is right and what is wrong. Everybody understands that a business cannot go on doing charities and survive. If somebody finds a formula to do both, one wonders, why it should not be hailed as a smart move. Modern generations believe in multitasking, to them CSR can very well double up as hardcore marketing strategy. Marketing will, in all probability, blur its boundaries with charity and philanthropy in the days to come. What will also probably disappear are those who claim the moral high ground and criticise, but do precious little to help people in distress. What do you say?

(The author is Vice-President, Consumer Insight and HFD (Human Futures Development), McCann Worldgroup India)

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