The tragedy of disaster marketing

by Dan Goodswen in News Google+

Marketing Magazine recently published an article by me on using tragedy as content. They’ve been kind enough to let us reproduce it in full below:

the tragedy of disaster marketing

12 years ago, two planes were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Centre in New York, collapsing both towers.

A plane was also crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth hijacked plane, supposedly heading for the White House, was brought down before it reached its target. 2996 people died.

The date was September 11, 2001. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten.

Nor have you forgotten those who died in the subsequent bombings in Bali. Nor the events in London on July 7, 2005. You will clearly remember the horrific tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean in 2004, and Hurricane Katrina, which decimated New Orleans, also in 2005.

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that next year, 2014, is the centenary of the outbreak of World War One – The Great War – a war that claimed over 37 million lives.

These are tragedies and disasters that affect us all, both personally and on a wider cultural scale. These are times to commemorate and reflect, commiserate and mourn.

However you choose to remember or forget such events, let us be clear on this: tragedies and disasters are not marketing opportunities.

Last week in the US, brands as large as GE and Verizon sent out reminders to ‘honour the memory of those we lost’ using the hashtag #neverforget, which many Tweeps were using to commemorate the 9/11 attacks.

Businesses as diverse as golf courses, plumbers, restaurants, sports nutritionists and tanning salons used 9/11 to give out discounts on their products.

‘Remembering the fallen heroes’ claimed one tweet, right before peddling their wares on the trending hashtag.

Much has been written before about how brands on social media are not friends with their customers, but it’s a point worth re-iterating, because brands need to understand their place – you are not people.

When a person likes or follows your brand they are giving you permission to talk to them. You are being invited into their newsfeed and their timeline along with their friends and family, but you are not one of them. You do not have permission to cross that line.

That line applies to topics such as sex, religion and politics – as it would when conversing with any customer – and it also applies to tragedies and disasters.

While social media has changed the way brands communicate with their customers, it has not changed the fundamental brand/customer relationship. You are still the brand. They are still the customer. The reason you are on social media is to sell things.

Never forget that.

The topics you have permission to talk about should be outlined in your social content strategy. They should be things that are valuable to your customer, and relevant to both your customer’s interests and to your brand.

When there is cause for national celebration, you may find some room in your content to reference it in a valuable, relevant way. But there is no valuable, relevant way to talk about tragedy.

I’ve said before that your social content strategy is as much about what you choose not to post, because everything you say as a brand on social media is marketing. Every post or tweet is branded content. You can’t brand grief.

Where I grew up, in the UK, tragedies were marked by an act of collective silence. At times like these staying silent will say more about your grief, and will sound a lot more sincere, than saying anything at all.

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  • Cecilie Hjermind

    Great article. It got me thinking, what if a brand chose to collaborate with a charity that for instance works for those affected by these disasters, which would include mentioning the tragedy. Would it still be wrong to promote this collaboration?