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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Disaster, re-defined and in real time

After tragedies like 9/11, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2010 earthquakes in Chile and Haiti, it is difficult to imagine any event that could be capable of shocking the collective conscience of the world. But the tragic events that began five days ago in Japan—the earthquake, resulting tsunami, and ongoing nuclear plant crisis—seem to have done just that.

First, Japan is an important political ally and economic partner to the U.S., at a time when really great friends are especially treasured. But our relationship goes beyond business. Japanese heritage is an important ingredient in the great American melting pot. People from Japan (and families of Japanese descent) populate cities and neighborhoods across the U.S., especially along our west coast and in Hawaii. While their geography is an ocean away, the reality of this tragedy has hit very close to home, impacting friends, families and companies we are familiar with.

Secondly, there have been few disasters so vividly captured as this one (I would include only 9/11 and Katrina in this group). While aftermath video was abundant following the recent earthquake in Haiti and the Indian Ocean tsunami, real-time event footage was spotty, at best. In contrast, the video coming out of Japan is in very real time, in very stark detail, and in plentiful supply. We have seen entire towns swallowed by water and debris, and hydrogen explosions at nuclear power plants (much of it live). We have seen never-before images of ships beached awkwardly on the tops of buildings… and the all-too-familiar faces of despair.

Implications: The goal of this blog is to help business owners, managers and marketers better understand and connect with their consumers. Most consumers are human, and events of the past week have touched much of humanity. So I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to ask how the past week might impact consumer thought and behavior. Here are just a few of the things I’m thinking about, as I attempt to consider the wide range of possibilities:

Will these events re-define our general concept of disaster? (Are we becoming conditioned or de-sensitized to these massive catastrophes?)

Could these events cause more people to see their own difficulties as less dramatic or important? (Are we becoming more sensitive to the harm we see others suffer?)

Will these events cause the Japanese economy to slide back into recession? Will their trade partners also be at greater risk?

Given that Japan is the world’s third largest economy (4th if the European Union is considered a sovereign economy), will the charitable response be as strong, or different, than it has been in previous global crises?

Could the relief efforts lead to a sense of “shared experience” that brings parts of the world community closer together?

Could local a local company (like yours) facilitate the compassion many consumers might like to express… but not know how? (Is there a cause marketing effort that might help you do well… while you’re doing something good?)

This is one of those times when it is easy to have more questions than answers. But the events unfolding in Japan have captured the attention of many consumers, based on what they have been Tweeting about, watching on YouTube, and posting on Facebook in the past week. So they are questions worth asking.

Mike Anderson, for the Elm Street Economics consumer trends blog. A service of The Center for Sales Strategy, Inc.

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