22 February 2009

Victorian bushfires: Which brands are rising from the ashes?

[Note: This article is not intended to be distasteful or to cause offence. I’m not suggesting that anybody “wins” or has sought to “win” from tragedies like September 11 or Black Saturday. I’m merely applying a marketing and brand management perspective to what often happens in the wake of such events.]

Contemporary approaches to consumer behaviour view brands as a key way in which humans beings categorise the modern world, and a basis for sharing important cultural concepts and experiences. It’s not surprising, then, that new brands emerge and others are strengthened or damaged in the context of major events like disasters and wars.

This was certainly apparent in the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September 2001.

First were the attacks themselves and their immediate consequences. It didn’t take long before “September 11”and “9/11” became the two names used relatively interchangeably, especially in the US. No reference to a year is necessary – say “September 11” or “nine-eleven” and people know instantly to what you are referring.

Then came the groups, institutions and individuals whose brand associations, imagery and equity changed in the wake of the attacks and the tragedy.

Consider al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. It’s fair to say that neither was a household name before 9/11, especially not outside the US. Now, for many in the West, they stand for evil – a willingness to deliberately sacrifice thousands of innocent civilians and to horrify and terrorise whole populations in the name of a dubious cause. To be “linked to al-Qaeda” or have “trained with al-Qaeda” is to be tarred with the same brush.

The New York Police Department, with whom New Yorkers had sometimes had an uneasy relationship over the decades, and the Fire Department of New York were rightly hailed as heroes of 9/11 for their extraordinary responses and selfless sacrifice. Millions of consumers have bought T-shirts and caps bearing the acronyms NYPD and FDNY out of admiration and genuine empathy.

As a focal point for New York’s response to the attacks and for New Yorkers in general, Mayor Rudy Giuliani became a national and international figure. The boost to his brand equity might have been sufficient to take him to the White House had other challenges and challengers not appeared – not that he would have sought to manipulate the tragedy of 9/11 for political advantage.

But there is no doubt that George W. Bush did choose to leverage the powerful brand imagery of the 9/11 attacks in launching the war on terror and, in particular, in justifying the invasion of Iraq. This has come to be seen as a misuse or misrepresentation of 9/11 and was one of many things that came back to haunt Bush in the later years of his presidency.

Now in Victoria and, indeed, across Australia, it has been interesting to observe some of the same phenomena in action – the emergence and re-making of some brands in the wake of the terrible bushfires of Saturday 7 February.

First, there’s the issue of what to call the fires. While “Ash Wednesday” took root quickly in the Australian consciousness after the 1983 fires, I get the sense that the name “Black Saturday” hasn’t yet become embedded. Of course, it doesn’t have the head start that “Black Friday” (1939) and “Ash Wednesday” had, both being names that were already in popular use in other contexts.

Perhaps the use of the name “Black Saturday” in speeches for the national day of mourning on Sunday 22 February – and, in particular, in PM Kevin Rudd’s official address – will get it over the “tipping point” of public awareness and acceptance.

Which organizational and individual brands have emerged strengthened from the ashes of Black Saturday?

Most prominent must be the Country Fire Authority. A continuous flow of words and pictures have reminded us what horrors the members of the CFA confronted both in fighting the firestorm and, all too often, as the first to come upon the unimaginable human consequences. The discovery that the picture of a CFA officer giving a koala a drink was from before Black Saturday did nothing to diminish the respect the organisation earned.

The fact that so many are volunteers is a critical part of the CFA’s brand identity and values and our response to the CFA brand. In his speech on Sunday, Rudd acknowledged this brand imagery and how it might resonate for Australians in the future when he referred to “a new army of heroes where the yellow helmet evokes the same reverence as the slouch hat of old”.

Although Rudd has been chief mourner, it’s not clear whether this has had much impact on his brand image. On the other hand, the brand of Victorian premier John Brumby has had a very obvious boost – this is not to suggest, of course, that he would ever have wished to gain brand equity in this most tragic of ways. My observations suggest that over the past two weeks, as his real personality and humanity have been allowed to come to the fore, many Victorians have warmed to a man who was once widely considered too cold and distant to be electable as Premier. Political commentators have made the same observation.

As the organization at the centre of the major fundraising appeal and at the heart of relief and recovery efforts, the Red Cross has had a significant boost to its salience in the mind of the average Australian. But then, of course, that is its fate – to be prominent at times of disaster, tragedy and great need, and far less visible the rest of the time.

Have any brands lost ground? As some people have cast about for someone to blame for the tragedy, “The Greens” (and/or “greenies” in general) and the Shire of Nillumbik have been two early targets of negative sentiment in regard to planning regulations and processes. These will no doubt be an area of inquiry for the Royal Commission.

Last but not least are the communities like Kinglake, Marysville, Strathewen, Flowerdale and Calignee, many of which may have been unfamiliar names even to Melburnians before this disaster, but now immediately call to mind the horror of the fatal firestorm. This is not necessarily the kind of brand association that a town wants – just ask the people of Lockerbie in Scotland, whose town even 20 years later is known only for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

But, as Kevin Rudd noted on Sunday, these names and others are now “etched deep in the nation's memory”.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're back!

Thank goodness. I love the blog but assumed you'd gone for good.