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Communicating in This Time of Crisis
Neil Cotton, Emma Gilding, Antony Wright, O&M NY.

Learning to speak again

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, conventional advertising seemed inappropriate to many. Neil Cotton, Emma Gilding and Antony Wright offered advice on how brands could find a voice that was sensitive and fitting.


In times of uncertainty, answers don't have a very long shelf life, but questions do. Understanding this, we have considered some of the questions that you might be thinking about following the events of September 11th and the overall change in national mood - how should your brands, and those of your competitors, behave as a result?


What should I be doing?

Presence & leadership: In times of crisis, many companies believe that the right thing to do is to step out of the fray, cease all marketing activity and not cloud an already emotional situation with 'commercial' messages. To a great extent, they are right. In the immediate aftermath, people are thinking about loss and grief rather than commercial activity.

However, as the situation progresses from high-impact trauma to longer-term grief, there is a need to begin 'getting back to normal' and that involves some re-establishment of the familiar landscape. Part of that process is about re-engaging in 'dialogues' with the media, culture, brands, products and a whole host of other things.

The question for brand owners is, how can they ensure that the re-engagement between consumer and brand is an effective, appropriate and sensitive one?

First, it is important to recognize where the brand stands in relation to the tragedy and the overall national mood. This is covered in the next section. Second, in the light of this, understanding how to act to ensure that your brand navigates this crisis safely and plays a constructive role is key.

There are no hard and fast rules here, but there are two points worth making about presence and leadership.

Although consumers do not want to be overtly pitched to at this time, they may well crave specific product information: "Are the trains still running on time?", "Is my phone service still available?" Moreover, brands that are recognized leaders have permission to act as such, and consumers recognize some value in this. Brands should take the approach of focusing on fundamental brand values, because values are re-assuring and at the core of their relationship with people. This is a fine line to walk and will require judgement on a brand-by-brand basis. Examples of brands doing this well might be Kmart with their "Embrace Freedom" ad in the Sunday New York Times, or Kenneth Cole's New York storefront which displays a sign saying "What you stand for is more important than what you stand in". We would suggest using great caution in combining sales-oriented messaging with more brand-value driven statements in a single piece of communication: It is key to find the correct messaging architecture to avoid giving the impression of actively selling based on a brand's heritage and position and appearing exploitative.

Consumers increasingly want and expect brands to recognize and play a part in wider societal issues. As trust in traditional authority roles have declined, brands have often stepped in as lighthouses through which the world is interpreted. It may follow, therefore, that allowing a brand to disappear from view in times of trouble is actually breaking a covenant with the customer. Roper 2000 reports that even in ordinary times "seven in ten consumers consistently agree strongly that business should consider what is good for society, not just what is good for profits".

What role should my brand play?

Even before asking, "what do I say as a brand?" one should ask, "is it right to speak at all at this time?" To answer this, it helps to consider where your brand sits in the bigger picture. To do this, consider which of the following three categories your brand fits into.

  1. Core Group Brands: Comprises brands directly involved in the event. By this we mean companies that either lost people, companies whose equities were involved or select members of the business community. These brands didn't choose to become involved, but now that they are, they play an important role representing the injured parties. As they recover and show resolve, humility and strength, they set the standards for all others to follow. Specific and credible information on the recovery progress is widely looked for, and the most important target group is almost certainly the internal audience of employees, suppliers and partners faced with the task of re-construction.
  2. Beacon Brands: Comprises brands which, while not directly involved in the event, could be expected to play a role in responding to the wider crisis. This expectation could come from a combination of their heritage, standing, size, significance, reputation or trust; they could be considered 'Beacon Brands' or 'Trust Brands'. Examples here would be IBM, American Express, Sears, Coke or Levi's. Suddenly, long-standing (and partially abandoned) unifying and comforting emotional equities such as "reach out and touch someone", "Kodak Moments" or even "the great American chocolate bar" have a whole new resonance.

    Brands in this group have the most difficult decisions to make, because how they act and react during the crisis could have significant repercussions for how they, and others around them, are perceived after the event. To do this well, they need to respect the protocols set by those core group brands, the ones directly involved, and overall be useful in what they do and say. But these brands represent economic vitality and recovery, not just among the business community but the wider population. They are potent symbols of national regeneration and unity. Communications play an important role in underlining this.
  3. Context Brands: Consists of brands whose involvement is peripheral, yet whose participation is integral to the restoration of normality. These could be anything from packaged goods brands to clothing and fashion. The one thing they all have in common is that, on a personal basis, they are effective in re-creating recognizable points of normality in people's lives, something very important and comforting in times of crisis. But they do not normally have credibility in making assertions or connections around the broader national mood.

Having made a judgement based upon where your brand stands in the bigger picture, it is possible to make a better call as to whether your brand should speak at all right now, or hold until the situation changes.

What should I say, what should I do?

Once you have decided that there is some mutual value in having a dialogue between your brand and your consumers, it is important to consider what you say and do, as well as where you say and do it.

First, on a pragmatic level, there are a couple of immediate things to consider. An audit of existing communications is key in assessing where a brand is vulnerable to criticism. Beyond just looking at TV and print work, it is important not to forget elements of the communications mix that, while not expensive or high profile, are still going out to the public. Some of these may not appear immediately, like time-delay email communications, but nonetheless they are customer-facing and therefore need to be anticipated and addressed.

Also, as companies seek to help in such situations with donations and the like, there is a temptation to call attention to the valuable contributions they make either in the press, in advertising or signage on location. This is not necessarily positive ¬- it has a real danger of appearing to be symbolic pandering, and the old adage of doing these things, not talking about them, may apply in many cases. While seemingly an obvious point to make, thus far a number of high-level brands have made this mistake, quite possibly to their long-term detriment.

From a more strategic perspective, simply tweaking and cleaning up the execution of what has gone before may not be sufficient if the world really did change on September 11th. As the managers of brands, it is incumbent upon us to look at the changes in the environment we operate within and make a judgement about what that might mean to our brands. At this early stage of change this is, of course, difficult to do. We need to look to consumer behavior and reactions for clues to help us identify the beginnings of longer-term trends.

However, even when the immediate shock of the September 11th horror begins to diminish, we believe that the event, coupled with an already negative economic environment and the probability of continuing socio-political uncertainty around the globe means that we have reached a genuine inflection point around how consumers see the world and therefore brands. In terms of thinking about communications, this is not merely a moment of crisis but a sea change for at least the medium term.


As people whose business is the business of brands, we need to look beyond the commercial implications of this tragedy and towards some of the broader consumer reactions that have and will result. While it's not always possible to assess the direct impact of these reactions, they can help to guide through the uncertainties. Think of these as topics to consider rather than implications to act upon.

A growth in desire for connectivity & community

One of the many email visuals to circulate in the aftermath of the attack.

It is no surprise that in times of crisis people seek the comfort of community to help them cope. This crisis is no exception. We are beginning to see a significant shift in the way Americans are going to operate culturally. In the light of what has happened, people are moving from the notion of "me" to the idea of connection and community, "we" - such as the overwhelming volunteer support that has been shown, spontaneous and very outward mourning vigils and even the coming together of corporations for the greater good.

They are formed explicitly for the purpose of bringing people together and can be seen in all walks of life.

Religious Local
Family Action-based (helpers)
Political Work
Industry Media
International Co-cultural

This phenomenon is nothing new, it occurs often when there is a significant tragedy; it's a natural human reaction. What is different in this case, however, is the scale and significance of this event. For that reason it is conceivable that this movement towards connection and community will be much more of a significant and long-lasting trend. Another difference in this case is that the communities being formed are not just for comfort and relief, they are for action and expression, and this, too, is reflective of the scale of the event. One further observation is that we are not just seeing individuals coming together to form groups, but seeing groups coming together to form new and more powerful groups. While an immediate implication for brands may seem hard to find, one thought is that such a sophisticated network of networks will permit greater communication between consumers, and a louder voice with which to air their views. This is important news for brands trying to manage their equities in times of change.

These changes are pushing consumers into wholly new and unfamiliar territory. This is probably the most important overall cultural implication - as most trend observers have been talking for some time about the increasing individualization of our lives, away from community and groups towards private fulfillment. Those brands that have the credentials to address us as members of a community have a duty to do so now.

Patriotism for the new America

A rise in patriotic feeling is the natural response to an attack such as the one on September 11th. Looking back at how such feelings have often been portrayed in communications, there has been a tendency to represent the notion of patriotism in America in a very uni-cultural, almost stereotypical manner, using timeless evocations of nostalgia and small-town life.


However, with the realization that the US has developed into a truly multi-cultural society, brand owners and marketers need to ensure that the symbols of patriotism used reflect this and stay in step with the country. There appears to be a very high awareness of the fact that the tragedy has impacted a very broad cross section of Americans - there is an opportunity for brands to celebrate this patriotism in a way appropriate to the new multi¬cultural face of America, joined together in unity in a time of crisis.

America in the global context

Coupled with the rise in American patriotism is an increasing sense of the connection between the US and the global community - a desire not to feel alone and isolated. There is an opportunity for large, global US-based brands to represent this feeling of a global village, almost acting in an ambassadorial sense, reflecting America to the outside world and, importantly, bringing a sense of the global community to America. One is tempted to think of the classic campaigns from brands like Coca Cola which showed a diverse global community brought together around timeless yet quintessentially American values.

Maintaining balance in crisis - comfort and optimism

No one would deny the importance of brands being respectful and appropriate, especially in difficult times. However, there is a flip side to this idea. Brands can also play a part in conveying a much-needed sense of comfort and optimism to the wider audience. As managers of brands, we need to therefore ensure that we do not fall into the trap of simply mirroring the downbeat mood and seriousness of the nation. Certain luxury items, for example, can play a valuable role as comfort and self-reward in a difficult period; food brands may provide a small moment of enjoyment and relief that are in contrast to the prevailing atmosphere.

However, it seems as if the prevalent tonality of the past decade driven by the notion of a self-directed "community of one" - of detached irony - may feel somewhat out of sync with the new environment. Involvement in civic issues and politics, the community around us and world affairs, may lead to a desire to talk to us in clearer, more sincere and direct ways than in recent years. Superficial, self-referential and mindlessly hip communication is likely to appear hopelessly off target.


Brands are clearly an important part of American life, and economic activity is a potent symbol of national recovery and healing. We have a duty to communicate to our customers but to do it in a way that is helpful, informative, optimistic and sensitive.

But the broader context is likely to shift on an almost daily basis in the weeks and months ahead. It is crucial for brand marketers to continually talk and listen to their constituencies more often than ever. We need to reach a balance between remaining true to the timeless values of individual brands and providing highly timely, useful 'customer advocacy' in product offerings.

Given consumers' need for connection and community in this time, marketers would be wise to consider more intimate one-to-one communications as a valuable addition to their mass-market communications. This more direct form of communications can be as, or more, effective in maintaining that customer relationship in times of adversity or to communicate issues that seem inappropriate in a wider context.

Finally, it is more crucial than ever to remain highly aware of the picture created by the overall communications activity of a company, e.g., advertising, public relations and corporate communications. Consumers will not view any individual activity in isolation. Employees and 'internal' audiences need to be actively communicated with during this time and must be able to see the brand and company through the same lens.

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