Natural Disaster Marketing 101 (updated 2018)


When a natural disaster strikes, one of the first things to happen is the 24-hour news cycle clogs the airwaves with stories of total misery and destruction, usually with specialized theme music and graphics. These hand-wringing, anxiety-inducing stories choke the airwaves for about 24-48 hours before and during a natural disaster.

In the 72 hours that follow, the stories of human grit and perseverance fill the spaces in an attempt to frame the situation as “all better” and “life is good.” It’s the “Tragedy Formula,” or emotional manipulation, whichever you’d like to call it, and marketers know this.

From the first whiff of a natural disaster, Marketers get to work and think, “How can I take advantage of this situation? How can I sell more of my stuff and is there any customer loyalty or good PR vibes to get out of this situation?”

It’s what Marketers do; we’re trained to take advantage of an opportunity.

Grabbing an opportunity with an audience who’s actively paying attention is why so many people own Shamwow’s and Ronco Rotisserie Ovens.

Marketers took advantage of insomniacs and pushed irresistible products to sleep-deprived souls all across the world. It worked like a charm driving low investment, high reward products to people whose ability to make a rational buying decision was eroded by a lack of sleep. Brilliant, right?

(for the record, not all Marketers take advantage of people in a weakened decision-making state but there are those who’ve definitely earned the “bad rap”)

Ronco Rotisserie Infomercial

BUT, there are different boundaries for marketing during or just after a natural disaster that don’t apply to other situations.

Some boundaries are logistically imposed (like power and internet access), others are highly emotional and very, very personal.

Tread lightly, marketers.


Ground Rules for Marketing During/After a Natural Disaster

Important note: Your targeting will absolutely change during a situation like a hurricane. It’s not enough for marketers to dust off their personas and customize messaging and geotargeting for this particular disaster. You need to go deeper and do better.


1. Empathy and Humanity rule the day.

Put your “OMG ROI opportunity!” hat away. Place yourself in the shoes of those who are directly affected by the event. If you don’t feel you have enough experience to understand your target customer, talk to someone who’s been through a natural disaster and get their opinion. There is no harm in stress testing your messaging, visuals, and placement with someone who’s been there and done that.

The radar image that looks like a skull is Hurricane Matthew as it passed over Haiti in October 2016. I was in Atlanta when I first saw this image (as my family and I had evacuated ahead of the hurricane) and my stomach dropped, and at that moment, I thought there was a very real chance that my home and my community would be destroyed.


2. Be sensitive to highly charged emotions from your customers.

Emotions run high during a natural disaster. People are typically more anxious, overwhelmed, experience unpredictable reactions, and can be more sensitive to environmental factors.

Understanding the emotional state of your customers will inform the tone and voice you use in your messaging. Your default setting should be “walk softly” vs. hard-sell with any messaging you put in front of affected customers.


3. Expect (sometimes radical) changes in customer buying behavior.

Your customers are thinking about anything and everything; the communities and possessions they left behind, what’s currently happening, what could occur in the future, what’s the worst-case scenario they need to plan for, etc.

Stress alters the way people weigh risk and reward and their decision-making processes, focusing on “resource decisions” such as acquiring food, safety, and survival goods. Once people ensure the physical security of family members, thought processes can drift, become erratic and dramatically different than what they usually experience and express.

Throw your Buyer’s Journey out the window and look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, focusing on the bottom of the pyramid, instead.

A good rule of thumb; if you’re selling to people directly or peripherally affected by a natural disaster and your product or service doesn’t fall into the “Psychological Needs” and “Safety Needs” part of the pyramid, it’s probably best to sit out this marketing opportunity.


4. Evaluate current customer resources.

People affected by a natural disaster may have access to computers, TV and internet access at the beginning of the event and if they evacuated. Once they return to their homes, they may not have running water, power, access to fuel, may not have internet access, and only have their phones which may or may not have data and voice services. It may even be dangerous or impossible to travel short distances.

They may not be able to receive USPS, FedEx or UPS deliveries, so if you’re selling something that is needed, but has to ship and deliver, requires internet access or power, think about sitting this sales opportunity out unless you can figure out a way to perform in dangerous conditions. Loss of resources can last for weeks depending on the severity of the disaster.

(My family “glamped” in our house for three days without power. Board games, kitchen cabinet cleaning, and lots of anxious pacing happened during daylight hours. We didn’t travel within our greater community due to downed power lines and the danger of trees and limbs falling. It was nearly two weeks before we started receiving mail and deliveries regularly.)


How NOT to Market Your Products and Services During a Natural Disaster

(alternatively titled, “Don’t be a Self-Serving Douchebag”)

Remember, tensions and emotions are running high.

People directly and peripherally affected may be oversensitive, and they’re likely stressed out.

Here are some examples of what not to do when you want to push your products and services to those affected by a natural disaster.

Do not sell ANYTHING with the Promo Code “HURRICANE” or “[storm name]”.

Hurricane Sale

Don’t be this guy. It doesn’t matter how thankful you are that you dodged getting hit by a hurricane, it doesn’t give you license to capitalize on other’s misfortune or generally be an ass about it.

This super-sleazy newsjacking tactic is nauseating professionally and offensive personally.

Turn off your PPC Ads & Remarketing if you’re selling Real Estate.

I did hide the name of this company. Why? They’re local, were directly impacted by the hurricane and to be frank, they probably had some low-level manager or out of town agency running the campaign and, simply, forgot to turn it off.

Still, it’s a poorly timed ad and unfortunate headline. The people targeted by the ad, let them know exactly what they thought about the campaign.


Turn off your PPC Ads & Remarketing if you’re selling vacations.

Of the 40+ large golf courses in my area, many of them won’t be playable for some time. That’s what happens when 100-year old oak trees meet hurricane-force winds and land on the greens, turning your short game into a challenging mini-golf obstacle course. Golf courses are fragile and they get messed up fast.

Unfortunately, this didn’t stop companies from pushing golf vacation packages on the very day the hurricane hit.

It’s understandable if these were local companies who, in a rush to evacuate, simply forgot to turn off their Google Ads campaigns, but if you’re a national company or agency with clients directly affected by a natural disaster, you should know better.

In 60 days (a pretty standard booking pace for a vacation) the situation may be a little different and some courses may be playable but when a Category 2 rolls up the east side of the island you’re promoting, it’s questionable at best to promote these vacations.


How to Market Your Products and Services the RIGHT Way During a Natural Disaster

Listen and respond to the needs of the community

Your customers will tell you what they need and when they need it if you listen to them. If your company can respond and aid through good will, your promotional efforts can reap positive sentiment and loyalty dividends for your brand.

Duracell PowerForward Program

Duracell activated their PowerForward truck fleet up and down the Southeastern coast, distributing batteries and offering to charge cell phones. For people who are in shelters or who don’t have power, this is a valuable offering and an excellent way to support communities affected by a natural disaster.

Duracell Power Forward Matthew

This single post alone had over 1300 comments, 4700 shares, and 19,000 reactions. Social media engagement? Yeah, they got it.

They did it again in March 2018 for tornadoes in Alabama

Duracell Power Forward Alabama Tornadoes

You can learn more about Duracell’s PowerForward Program here

Alleviate customer concerns and worries.

The last thing that people affected by a natural disaster want to worry about (or even think about) is making sure their bills are paid on time. When your home is rendered inhabitable and when you’ve lost everything and are living in a shelter, the last thing you need to worry about is when your cell phone bill is due.

Verizon and AT&T

Both Verizon and AT&T waived data, text and talk limits for their customers during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint offered free services to their customers impacted by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. They also pushed notifications to Facebook and sent text messages to customers to grab as much awareness as possible.

Southwest Airlines

While not directly supporting hurricane relief efforts, Southwest Airlines took to social media to get the attention of their directly impacted customers (and potential customers).

Southwest didn’t try to sell flights or vacations to these areas; instead, they stayed true to their core brand promise and focused on their customers. They gave pertinent information and then stayed out of the media mess.


Home Depot Retargeting

Home Depot has a retargeting program that’s pretty sweet. I’ve been stalked all over the interwebs by Home Depot ads and products.

I looked at generators while we were sitting in a hotel room, pondering what our daily lives would be like when we returned, so I wasn’t surprised to see a retargeting ad after I left the site.

The only thing I would add to this retargeting campaign is an inventory control message or trigger – sadly, these generators were sold out at the Home Depot closest to our evacuation hotel.

Alleviate bystander helplessness.

Not everyone can be or wants to be a first-responder but they want to help in whatever way they can. Remove barriers to help collect financial donations or support and use your brand and your reach to promote non-profit organizations who are doing good work for those affected by a natural disaster.

The American Red Cross

Between setting up shelters, organizing blood drives and supporting affected communities, the American Red Cross does an outstanding job raising funds by making it stupid-easy to donate.

Donate $10 with a single text message – something your teenager can do in about 5 seconds.

A brilliant fundraising technique for a non-profit followed up by retargeting, display and social media support messaging, working in tandem to keep the emotions and empathy high by people unaffected or peripherally affected.

You can learn more about American Red Cross Donation, Support, and Training programs here.

Best Friends Animal Society

After Hurricane Harvey, Best Friends Animal Society set up shelters, fundraisers, and coordinated with volunteers to reunite pets with their families and to move abandoned and stray animals to other geographic areas so they could find homes.

BFAS Donate

A final note about marketing during a natural disaster:

Employ your empathy. Ask yourself if whatever marketing campaign you’re about to deploy would be helpful to you if you’d been displaced from your home. Ask yourself if this campaign helps your customers or just lines your pockets with their cash and doesn’t help them get their lives back to normal.

Don’t discount “normal”. Speaking from experience, it’s the only thing you want when you’ve experienced a natural disaster and absorbed and expressed all of the anxiety that goes with the experience. If your product or service doesn’t help people get their lives back to normal, don’t participate. Save your time and cash and sit it out or amplify the work of the organizations who are helping.

Be helpful, be responsive, be HUMAN and make it easy to redeem or participate in whatever marketing you choose to execute. Your customers will remember and thank you for it.

What’s the best or worst example of marketing during a natural disaster you’ve seen? Leave a comment or send me an email at info [at] with the details and I’ll add it to this post.


Looking for some help with your marketing or want to get a sanity check on your natural disaster marketing plans? Schedule a free, 20-minute consultation and we’ll discuss how you can position your company with your customers in a way that will attract attention, generate sales, and instill loyalty with sensitivity.

About the author

Sunny Hunt is the CEO/Founder of Hunt Interaction.

Sunny is not your average marketer. She combined 20+ years of digital marketing experience, and her position as a natural-born outsider to create Hunt Interaction, a high performing conversion rate optimization consultancy. Using a customer-centric focus, Sunny develops smart, achievable strategies and tactics that help her clients convert more website traffic and turn new customers into raving fans.

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