Using Japan’s Relief Effort to Market Your Business? I’m Cool With it. (Sort of)

Posted: March 29, 2011 in Uncategorized
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In the wake of yet another catastrophic natural disaster – this time in Japan – the world has come together to support the millions of impacted people who have lost their friends and families, homes, and livelihood. With the threat of a nuclear fallout continuing to burden the people of Japan (and those of us who rely on their economic health to maintain our own), the American Red Cross has stepped up its fundraising efforts in earnest. Celebrities have also come out to support the cause, such as Lady Gaga who donated $1.5 million to Japanese earthquake victims, or Sandra Bullock and Gwen Stefani (full story here) who each pledged $1 million of their personal fortunes. Hell, even Charlie Sheen is donating $1 from each ticket sold to his upcoming ‘Torpedo of Truth’ tour.

Some companies are using the Japanese crisis to position themselves as ‘good members of the global community.’ For example, AT&T (and later many other mobile service providers) recently made calls and texts from the US to Japan free until the end of March. Microsoft, not to be outdone, issued a twitter promotion where they would donate $1 for every retweet about their search engine, Bing, up to $100,000.

And here is where the controversy arises. As you can see by the image at the left, Microsoft’s, er, charitable spirit, was not well received by all. Although the company was actually helping the cause for Japan, people were outraged that the donation was contingent upon action on the part of the consumers to promote their product. Aforementioned AT&T was heralded for their program to help people reconnect with loved ones who are currently living in Japan. But what, really, is the difference between the two programs?

For the record, Microsoft quickly responded to the negative feedback by apologizing for the misunderstanding and donating the $100,000 without requiring further action from its @bing followers (In other news, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda also donated $1 Million toward Japan). Clearly, this was the right thing to do. But let’s not be fooled here, every business who is donating to this cause (or any other cause) is doing so, at least in some small part, for the publicity of the donation. That’s why companies release press statements announcing their intent to help, or leak details of their donation onto the web. And truthfully, that’s fine by me. Because if it makes the difference between a corporation donating $1 million or not donating at all, then let them have their publicity.

However, I also understand the outrage demonstrated by consumers here. The key difference between AT&T’s relief effort and Microsoft’s was that AT&T used the horrific tragedy as a publicity platform, where Microsoft used it as a marketing platform. During a time of immense need, companies who volunteer to help out, regardless of their intent, should be commended. Make your donation, take your kudos, and fade quietly into the distance. We, as consumers, are OK with a press release or a news report that a company is doing what it should be doing. But to design a marketing campaign around those victims crosses the line, and Microsoft quickly learned that crossing a line in today’s connected world means bad press can get out of hand, and FAST.

Many believe that the line separating PR and Marketing is blurring, and in many ways, it is. But one thing is clear: when it comes to helping people in desperate need, that line is as clear as ever.

What do you think? Is this a bad move by Microsoft, or just a good way to help the cause? Please comment below. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @billconnolly!

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