THE BLOG

Marketing at Your Peril

11/09/2012 05:00 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2013

Hurricane Sandy has just about finished devastating the East Coast of the United States of America. At time of writing, it's already claimed countless lives across both the Caribbean and United States, left millions of homes without power and early estimates are pricing the damage in New York alone in the billions.

Still, things are looking up for residents of the nine states under threat from Sandy, as according to an email blast on the eve of the storm last week, they could receive 20 percent off at American Apparel -- just by entering the special code SANDYSALE upon checkout.

The bargains don't stop there either. At Urban Outfitters, ALLSOGGY got you free shipping, while GAP was keen to alert everyone to the deals that can be had at their online store. Apparently there are many perks to being stuck indoors.

What is amazing is that not only have the likes of American Apparel/Gap/Urban Outfitters grossly underestimated Twitter's propensity to be outraged by this kind of insensitivity, but these types of "mishaps" seem to occur at every opportunity, without fail. Enter any form of large-scale tragedy, and there's a bumbling brand naively sending out offensive messaging as a thinly veiled attempt to try and cash in. The examples are almost too copious to count, consider these:

• In February 2011, American shoe designer Kenneth Cole joked that the "uproar in Cairo" may be a result of hearing about his new Spring collection. The uproar in question being the historic uprising and overthrow of the Mubarak government, with Cole even hijacking the #Cairo hashtag. (Although Cole does have previous, remarking post-9/11 to the NYT: "Important moments like this are a time to reflect... To remind us, sometimes, that it's not only important what you wear, but it's also important to be aware.")

• Microsoft was forced to apologise twice in 2011 for woefully crass marketing. In July, the Xbox PR team reminded grieving fans they could 'remember' the late Amy Winehouse by downloading her albums through Zune. Earlier in March, it used the fundraising campaign set up for victims of the Japan Earthquake, trading Retweets from its Bing account for donations.

• KFC Thailand in April demonstrated a highly dark sense of humour as they suggested customers could pick up a bargain bucket on the way home, with the threat of a tsunami impending.

• In February 2011, Expedia's attention to detail was lacking to the extent that they sent out promo email's featuring a picture of Christchurch cathedral in New Zealand -- hours after that particular cathedral, and the city as a whole had been severely damaged by serious earthquake.

Brands simply love to be at the centre of the zeitgeist when they can. Whatever people are talking about, they want to be right there too. Some manage to create the cultural talking point themselves (Old Spice and Nike both do this well), but for the large part most look to capitalize on what's in vogue; the Olympics and unexpected outpouring of patriotic sentiment being an obvious example. The string of John Lewis-esque adverts being another.

At its heart, it's a quest to give consumers what they want. We want brands to get to know us (so that they can better understand our needs and when it's appropriate to engage), but it's in this drive for personalisation and real-time response that far too many lose sight of that all important line that should be glaringly obvious, dividing what's appropriate and what isn't.

It's easy to point to social media as the double-edged sword that many brands fall foul of, committing brief but costly lapses of judgement that live forever on the internet. But real-time is where the future for these brands lies; Ray Winstone's live odds updates for example have become as much a part of the sport-on-TV experience as the accompanying punditry.

It remains to be seen, however, when brands will finally start to learn from these far too frequent social blunders and recognize tragedies are not bandwagons to be jumped on. If personalization is what brands are aiming for, they need to look at what characteristics define us all as human beings first, before they start to even begin to understand the nuances of the individual.