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Recent events across Australia highlight the need for compassion and clear thinking when it comes to delivering brand experiences during periods of crisis. As you are probably all too aware, fires have burned 10 million hectares of bush and forced thousands of people to flee their homes.

The modern world moves quickly and when campaigns have long lead times, it can be hard to know how your message will be received by the time it is launched. Here we dive into how to get it right. 


How not to do it

The internet is littered with examples of brand activations backfiring. Because it’s the internet, those impressions are forever. While it’s cringeworthy to watch brands woefully misstep, for the companies involved it is anything but.

Brand activations especially must be considered in the ever shifting light of context and sensitivity because of the potential for high social media reach. Dr. Pepper once lost tens of thousands of dollars in apology payments - not to mention the trust of the people of Boston - by placing a gold coin as part of a treasure hunt in their ‘hunt for more’ campaign on the entrance to a crypt in a revered city cemetery. 

Even the biggest brands are prone to such gaffs. Think about Mark Zuckerburg’s VR tour of Puerto Rico after hurricane Harvey. Facebook was trying to highlight how it’s innovative deployment of technology was helping people across the disaster-struck region. However,  adding emojis and cartoon-like characters to the experience rendered it tasteless. 

More recently, Tourism Australia’s ‘Matesong’ ad, featuring Kylie Minogue, clear blue skies, and pristine bushland and wildlife was quickly and respectfully pulled from all media for similar reasons. Though not an activation, if immediate action wasn’t taken this could have been considered as extremely insensitive considering the current bushfire crisis within the country. 

If you do find yourself on the receiving end of such backlash, the appropriate response is swift discontinuation - as Tourism Australia did - followed by unreserved apology and a brief, but not blame-shifting, explanation of your rationale. Oh and as with any apology, flipping the fault of the outrage onto the audience by saying you are sorry ‘for any offence caused’ is quickly seen through. 

How to do it

All of this is not to say however that brand activations cannot be done during times of crisis. The important thing to remember here is the need to tread extremely carefully, erring on the side of caution with every decision. 

If you decide to go ahead with your campaign, make sure it is in good taste and does not seek to merely capitalise on the present moment. Activations that seek to assist during a crisis are a good approach and there have been countless examples of businesses doing just this over the last few months for bushfire relief

More broadly, engagements that focus the narrative of your brand on a social issue will go down well and this is a good jump off point to get creative. For example, the surf brand O’Neill’s put 3D printers in the centre of Amsterdam to recycle plastic bottles in a bid to highlight ocean waste. 

Aligning your brand with a good cause such as this is a great idea if it makes sense for you. Make sure to focus on the efforts of those doing the hard work when going down this route however as snatching the spotlight away from those on the frontline is not a good look.  


Things to consider before going ahead

The number one question to ask yourself before going ahead with a campaign is ‘does this need to be said right now?’ If it does, great. If however, you decide that it could wait, also great. Re-evaluate your timeline. It’s often better to say nothing. 

Does the new context in which you are deploying your activation change the message of your campaign? Have you considered the historical, social, and political angles? 

If your experience is going to spark discussion, good. You want to get people talking about what you’ve done. There’s nothing worse than being forgettable. But...not all publicity is good. If your tactics are going to be controversial, make sure it’s light. Think Paddy Power’s ‘Juan Direction’ mariachi band serenading Donald Trump as he arrived at Glasgow Airport. 

If your campaign is tied into a particularly timely message, think of a way to restructure or reframe the concept. If you are using an activation to promote a new product or service, perhaps go for a soft launch and then promote the efficacy after the fact. This way you can mitigate the risk of insensitivity and demonstrate proof of impact afterwards. 

Final thoughts before lift off

If you choose to go ahead and deploy during a period of crisis, make sure it is worth it. Always err on the side of caution and have a contingency plan if things go wrong. 

Monitor the situation closely. One or two dissenting voices is to be expected but if the tide of public opinion begins to turn against you, get in front of it. If things go south, pull out, own up to your mistakes, and show how you are going to rectify the situation both in the present and the future. 

People expect and appreciate honesty and can always see through inauthentic opportunism. Integrity should be the cornerstone of your brand and as long as you work with that in mind, you minimise the risks involved.


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