Small businesses freeze marketing efforts in face of bush fire catastrophe

- January 22, 2020 6 MIN READ
Frozen in time: businesses freeze marketing efforts

Faye Hollands watched her phone in horror as the New Year’s fires unfolded. As much as she tried not to, she was transfixed by news of the devastating Australian fires. With her mum’s Cambewarra home in the Kangaroo Valley at risk from the southerly winds, she obsessively clicked the refresh button on the news and ‘fires near me’ to keep updated.

With January prime business building time for her small business Busy Business Women, and a new program to launch, she couldn’t bring herself to embark on any marketing. Frozen by guilt and fear of looking insensitive, Faye’s marketing fell by the wayside.

She felt marketing her business, while other people’s businesses and homes burned or could not trade, was in poor taste and disrespectful.

“It is a critical month for me, but I was paralysed by what to post when there was all this awfulness around me,” Faye said. “There is no rule book on how to act during times like that. I checked in with my Facebook group and there were so many posts that were highly emotional and confused.”

Psychologist Lisa Johnson said, “these feelings of guilt as we watch other people lose their homes and businesses were normal. The rawness of the situation with the repetitive footage makes you question how you can promote and move your business forward when people are living with heartache,” she said.

Former firefighter and small business owner Kiera Alexander launched her new app on January 2 despite feeling conflicted.

“It has definitely been a really strange time to launch, and I found it very difficult. But given the amount of time and money the business now owes me; I couldn’t afford NOT to try and get it out there either. It’s very conflicting,” she said.

“I’ve been working on my startup, an app to organise photos, for the past 3.5 years. It has cost me in the hundreds of thousands (personally funded). I spent the full day working on trying to get the word out within women’s business groups and trying to get real, tangible feedback, but the next day I just couldn’t bring myself to try and push it at all.

“I became consumed with what was going on with the bushfires on the NSW South Coast (I’m in Sydney) and trying to do things to help. I spent the next 48 hours, almost entirely on bushfires and not on trying to promote my brand-new business. We put our backyard granny flat up for offer on several different sites and ended up filling it with a local mum’s family who fled the fires.”

Jaci Hicken’s small cooking school in the Gippsland town of Mirboo North was not affected by the fires, but Jaci was unable to post/share/market anything about her business.

“I felt bad for doing so, as many of my followers, past guests, in the area were directly affected by the fires. It made me feel a little sick, when there was nothing wrong with me or my business, to promote when so many people I know were suffering. Many locals felt this way.  The catch is we need to people/ tourists to return.”

Faye, Keira and Jaci were not alone in their feelings of guilt, overwhelm and confusion. Facebook business group feeds were filled with thousands of posts echoing their sentiments. While their compassion and Aussie community spirit contributed to raising millions of dollars and sparking many fundraising ventures, the long-term repercussions to their business will be telling.  The damage may be immediately noticeable, but the ripple effect will be felt months down the track.

Deborah Lanyon from Small Brand Marketing said there are times when pausing a campaign may be the best option. “This is a case-by-case judgement call. If your message could be regarded as thoughtless or inappropriate, it’s best to pull back. Otherwise, the best thing for everyone – individually and as a community – is to continue with business as usual,” she said.

“Marketing comes back to the way small businesses are taught to interact with the community. Small businesses owners are constantly told to connect with customers – through their marketing and service provision – on a personal and emotional level. Because small business owners tend to have more direct relationships with their customers, there is a much finer line between the personal and the commercial aspects of their businesses.  This attitude tends to flow over to external issues, and when the issue is as emotive as the bush-fire crisis, it is very difficult to define an objective line of action and response.

“I’ve found many small business owners are relieved when advised to continue with business-as-usual. It’s a judgement call many find difficult to make, even if their common sense tells them to slow down commercially is simply not the answer.”

Faye eventually concluded life had to go on. “Despite all that was going on, I realised if I stopped marketing my business there would be long term financial ramifications if I took my foot off the pedal. As dual income family, my income counts and not earning anything in January would have a huge impact in the months to come,” Faye said.

“I don’t want to see another disaster – an economic one  – for me or other people in business. I knew there had to be a way I could still market and be sensitive to the situation.”

Lisa Johnson suggested businesses to think global and act local. “You still have to make money and look after your world. Businesses can move through this time by doing what they can afford to help,” she said.

Small business is a juggling act of emotions, skill and time. Throw into the mix a natural disaster, it is no surprise many had no idea how to proceed. An important element to consider when faced with something with the magnitude of the fires is understanding why and how of marketing actions.

Deborah Lanyon explained, “when deciding how to approach marketing, there are two key factors. What is your motivation? Look at your involvement through a clear, honest lens.  If there is the slightest chance you might be profiteering, then it’s better to donate quietly, and not promote sales associated with fundraising.

“The safest course of action is to support employees who are volunteering, or to find ways to raise and donate funds. Many will opt for the latter as a tangible way of contributing, however, again, the risk of being perceived as profiteering gives weight to the approach of giving to those in need and expecting nothing back. Under no circumstances should your actions be an opportunity to drive sales, or gain favourable publicity.”

Lauren Clemett, The Audacious Agency’s branding specialist, said it’s like walking a tightrope. “On one side, you want to be empathetic with the events going on, aware that one false step and you could fall from grace. On the flipside, you have to support yourself, your business and put food on your own table and it should be business as usual,” she said.

“In order to help someone out of a difficult situation, you first have to help yourself. There is little point jumping in with them.

“Clever brands work out how to embrace the disaster while sticking to their core values. Brands who don’t have an alignment with any sense of connection to the community, environment or humanity, struggle and often get punished for appearing heartless – because in fact, they don’t have a heart.”

Lauren agrees with Deborah. “If your brand is clear on its purpose, part of the initial brand strategy to create the heart of the brand should have been ‘why are we here, what purpose are we here to serve?’ enabling decisions regarding who they support, sponsorships, what messaging is used and how to go about marketing the brand, enabling them to react quickly and positively when disasters strike.

“The best way to manage your brand during a disaster is the same way anyone should – prepare well before it happens.”

For those still reeling, it’s time to move away from the news feed and put your head down and bottom up. The communities affected need all small business to dig in and prosper and spend their money in the fire affected towns.

Katrina Alilovic, a counselling psychologist, said many people succumbed to awareness fatigue, from the news, social media references, and fundraising efforts everywhere. “What’s most important is to make sure you are ‘in-charge’ – that it’s not being done to you and that there’s nothing you can do,” she said.

“We need to be in-charge of our consumption. Yes, be reflective but you also decide when you’ve had enough or better still, when you’re getting close to having reached your limit and need to step back as self-preservation.”

Faye believes the way forward is to continue marketing. “Best thing anyone in business can do is keep moving forward. Keep actioning your plan. This is not being heartless – run your business parallel to what is happening: support the charities and whatever you do, do it with authenticity and be genuine.”

Lisa Johnson has words of wisdom for those worried about the trolls and people seeing their efforts as taking advantage. “Remember there will always be pessimistic people who will never see the plus side; we need those people. Trauma can bring people together but look after yourself and do what you can,” she said.

And remember devastation happens every day around the world, visibility coach Melissa Groom counsels. “We are human and when our fellow Australians and animals get hurt or die, we also hurt and grieve,” she said.

“More than ever our work, which is our livelihood, is important and changes lives. Do not feel guilty about earning money, the better off we are, the more we can help others. If you see people promoting their business or having a special offer to support the bushfire/drought families then support them, don’t bring them down.”