Hurricane Harvey Donations Serve Up Reminder That Brand Authenticity Matters

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s landfall on the Texas Gulf Coast, retailers are making a colossal effort to help citizens in need, charitable organizations and first responders. Retail’s biggest brands, including Walmart, Amazon, CVS, The Home Depot, Lowe’s, Kroger, Target and many others have committed to donate, with some even set to contribute more than $1 million in aid.

But any charitable effort, especially in a time of need, must always be handled with care. Authenticity is important in fostering a genuine connection with the consumer, and this is magnified in situations where a retailer has to go beyond their typical “role” in serving them.

Additionally, at crisis times like this, brands need to monitor all their public communications and marketing campaigns. Airbnb seemed insensitive when it sent an Aug. 28 email promoting water-themed destinations.


“For the most part, over the past week I’ve seen that the offers of assistance are very genuine and true,” said Deb Gabor, CEO of Sol Marketing in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “They don’t seem at all to be looking like the organizations are trying to take advantage of a good thing. They’re truly altruistic in nature, and they seem to make sense for the organizations. If you are a retailer and you are looking to make an offer of assistance, don’t look at this as an opportunity to drive awareness for your brand. You will get good association from that without trying. I think it’s when brands try too hard that it could backfire.”

Without genuine sincerity, retailers risk appearing to be helping solely for the recognition and positive publicity that comes with donations. Even if the intention is sincere, overpromotion of the good deed can make it seem like the brand is putting itself at the center of attention. This can lead to consumer backlash, and with consumers having immediate access to social media, it’s easier than ever for shoppers to publicly speak out when they feel a brand is disingenuous.

“It seems to me that brands and retailers should sometimes try doing things without issuing press releases to pat themselves on the back,” said Al McClain, CEO and Co-Founder of RetailWire in a discussion. “If it is really all about charity, just do it without the fanfare and the PR department (like the mattress store owner who opened his store to any and all displaced residents, without any PR). I saw a Ford press release announcing a donation of $100,000 to the area, as another example. In other words, about the cost of one luxury car, when up to half a million cars have been totaled. Nice, but incredibly insufficient.”

Don’t Let Tactless Marketing Spoil Genuine Concern

It’s also important to note that a retailer can be genuine in helping a cause and still misfire from a marketing standpoint. For example, Airbnb enabled local hosts in areas heavily affected by the storm to offer free housing to those in need; a noble gesture in itself. But the company also sent through an ill-timed “floating world” themed marketing email to users on Aug. 28. The email, with the subject line “Floating homes, waterfall slides, & more reasons to travel,” advertises various water-themed homes and attractions for travelers to plan their trips around. One of the subheads in the message even says “Stay above water,” which drew criticism given the record rainfall and flooding in parts of Texas.

“This was absolutely unintentional,” Gabor said. “It just was something that happened during the course of daily business. But it made Airbnb look as if they were insensitive. If you’re going to make an offer of help and you are making it known that you are providing support to people during a difficult time, you need to examine all of your marketing activities, messages and efforts across your entire business just to ensure you’re not shooting yourself in the foot.”

Retail’s Top Brands Contribute Cash, Resources

Regardless of the motives behind the assistance, retail’s heavy hitters have shown that they are more than willing to donate to those in need in both cash and resources. Here are some retailers’ contributions to various groups and organizations:

  • Walmart has said it will give cash and product donations of $1 million or more to several relief groups helping people along the Texas Gulf Coast;

  • Amazon will match donations made to the American Red Cross Hurricane Harvey Relief fund on, up to $1 million;

  • Walgreens has committed to a $200,000 donation to Red Cross relief efforts, and customers can donate to relief efforts at store checkouts. The pharmacy is donating food items, first aid and medical equipment, including blood pressure cuffs, glucometer strips, catheters and transport wheelchairs, to the Red Cross emergency shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston;

  • Bass Pro Shops is providing more than 80 boats to support rescue and relief operations. Additionally, Bass Pro is donating $40,000 in supplies, including protein-rich foods like beef jerky and peanuts for those working in the field. The truckloads of supplies will support the Red Cross and Convoy of Hope;

  • Apple donated $2 million to the Red Cross over the weekend, and also will match employee donations two to one. Users can donate to the Red Cross through iTunes or on the App Store.

  • The Home Depot donated $1 million to the Red Cross to help with immediate relief efforts, and is sending truckloads of products to Texas stores to help people make repairs as soon as possible;

  • Lowe’s has contributed $500,000 to the Red Cross Disaster Relief arm and is setting up donation stations in all its Texas stores for customers who wish to donate;

  • Starbucks enables customers to make donations at any Starbucks store in the country, while its Starbucks Foundation has also given $250,000 to the Red Cross;

  • CVS Health and the CVS Health Foundation announced $200,000 in cash and in-kind product donations, including $50,000 each to the Greater Houston Community Foundation and the Red Cross, and $25,000 to the Salvation Army;

  • The Coach Foundation has committed $200,000 to the Red Cross, and the retailer also will match employee contributions;

  • H-E-B Grocery will donate $100,000 toward Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, specifically to the Red Cross, Salvation Army and Feeding Texas. Customers also can make a donation at its Texas stores;

  • The Kroger Co. Foundation committed $100,000 to the Houston Food Bank. For every share of Kroger’s Facebook post, the foundation will donate $5 to the Food Bank, up to $100,000; and

  • Target is donating $500,000 to support Harvey recovery efforts, including to organizations like the Red Cross, Salvation Army and Team Rubicon.

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