This year’s earthquake and subsequent tsunami have submerged Chile in a deep crisis, but the disaster has also provided a springboard for Chilean companies to approach the population that was affected, deploying a communications strategy rarely before seen in that country. “This is a new phenomenon in communications,” says Cristián Leporati, professor of marketing and director of the school of advertising at the Diego Portales University. According to Leporati, during the country’s 1985 earthquake – which had an intensity of 7.8 degrees on the Richter scale and affected central and southern Chile – companies did not launch massive campaigns for marketing and social support in the midst of the tragedy, the way they are doing now.

This time around, beginning on the first day after the disaster, companies arrived on the scene to unveil numerous new advertising spots that deployed radio, the written press and, especially, television. This situation clearly deserves to be recognized, notes Rodrigo Uribe, director of the master’s program in marketing at the University of Chile, “because the advertising industry reacted rapidly, with very effective but simple campaigns in which we can distinguish two clear stages.”

During the initial phase, immediately after the earthquake, Uribe notes, companies focused on reinforcing confidence in their brands by “emphasizing their social responsibility and commitment to Chile and to their customers.” These efforts were supported a great deal by the use of “patriotic symbols and specific forms of assistance, using an approach known as ‘1 plus 1.’” In this approach, whenever a customer buys, for example, one package of rice to donate to people affected by the earthquake, that brand of rice donates another package of the same product to people who were injured.

The second stage in this communications offensive is taking place now, weeks after the quake, notes Uribe. During this phase, companies begin to promote new products that are designed to mitigate the impact of the disaster. For example, the banking sector is offering mortgage loans that have lower interest rates. There are also consumer loans available at preferential rates, which involve periods of up to six months during which consumers do not have to pay anything on their pending debts.

Eduardo Torres, professor of marketing at the University of Chile, notes that messages during this second phase are “characterized by greater emotional intensity, and companies reveal that they are institutions concerned about their customers. That creates a benevolent view of those companies in public opinion.”

The Strategic Use of Simplicity

For all that, companies have not limited themselves to emotional appeals. They are also stressing solidarity and the urgent task of reconstructing those areas most badly damaged by the tragedy, including southern regions such as O’Higgins, El Maule and Bío Bío. Companies have also carefully created messages in very simple formats, notes Leporati, “avoiding the use of logos and hyperbolic, exaggerated language, so that they don’t fall back into using traditional marketing messages that could be viewed very poorly by consumers given the current situation. By using language in their strategic communications that is highly informative, companies emphasize the social and economic consequences that have resulted from the disaster.”

For example, Home Center Sodimac, which provides materials for construction and interior decoration, says in a spot advertisement: “The earthquake took away thousands of houses, so we at Home Center Sodimac are going to help you reconstruct your house.” A similar campaign comes from Unimark, which operates a supermarket chain: “To get back on our feet, the first thing we need to do is eat.”

Companies have also learned how to segment their target markets and to design messages that match the needs of each group of consumers. “There is a group of customers who were clearly affected by the quake and lost their houses, their jobs, and their ability to pay,” says Andrés Ibáñez, professor marketing at the Catholic University. “Companies are sending those people direct messages, with an eye on the long-term; they are trying to retain those consumers and make them more loyal by helping them deal with the crisis, as have the banks.”

A second sort of message, he notes, is directed at those people who have not experienced any loss after the earthquake. “For those people, there is a double-edged message. Companies are saying that they are operating normally, and that people can continue to trust their brands. On the other hand, they are showing them their social side by emphasizing the help that they are providing to the people injured by the disaster.” Companies that are taking this approach include retailers and providers of both traditional and cellular telephone services.

Corporate Social Responsibility or Corporate Marketing?

To win over consumers during this time of crisis, companies have been undertaking other efforts. For example, they are participating in various campaigns for donating basic products and cash to victims of the quake. The most notable of these campaigns is “Chile Helps Chile,” which held a 25-hour fundraising telethon in which the population, the private sector and the government managed to collect US$84 million for the people harmed by the earthquake. The banking sector also wrote a lot of checks that made it possible for the population and the private sector to make cash deposits. This involved a real competition among companies to see which could donate the most cash to the cause.

The strategy of participating in donation campaigns, notes Juan Pablo Muñoz, professor of marketing at the University of Chile, “encompasses the dimension of helping the community, as well as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which aims to create good will toward the corporation and improve its image as a ‘good corporate citizen.’”

Nevertheless, some experts doubt that the moves that companies are making can be classified as genuine CSR. For Leporati, CSR involves maintaining a commitment to a social project for several years. In his view, “all of the communications initiatives that we are seeing are simply cases of ‘social marketing.’ In no case does this involve CSR.”
Beyond such questions, are these sorts of advertising campaigns actually effective? Although experts agree that it will take months to evaluate the results of specific campaigns, these sorts of initiatives are already in full force. Torres believes that the rapid reaction times and continued attention shown [in these campaigns] toward the victims of the quake will [ultimately] yield positive results for these companies. After an earthquake of these dimensions, he says, victims “feel vulnerable, and are living with uncertainty. For this reason, benevolent messages of support have a high emotional content that consumers view in a positive way.”

Leporati holds the opposite view. He argues that in his professional experience, the public opinion of people affected by an earthquake does not necessarily respond to these kinds of advertising messages. The reason, he says, is that “during times like these, people are only concerned about rebuilding their homes and finding their lost family members. They are not open to any sort of advertising messages that aim to express empathy about their serious condition because they sense a certain degree of manipulation [on the part of advertisers].” Those people who emerged totally unharmed from the disaster are entirely different, however. Such people actually do welcome media advertising campaigns, especially those campaigns that involve cash donations, such as the “Chile Helps Chile” campaign. “The Chilean population is used to watching telethons, so they like to participate in these sorts of events.” Ever since 1978, these sorts of televised programs have been broadcast annually in Chile, with the goal of collecting money for rehabilitating handicapped children.

Damaged Construction Companies

Experts agree that both the image and credibility of construction companies have suffered since the people of Chile learned through the media that some buildings had collapsed during the earthquake, and that many other buildings had experienced serious structural damage, forcing their residents to abandon those proprieties. “Public opinion believes that [Chilean] construction companies were not prepared to deal with an earthquake of such great magnitude,” comments Muñoz. “This has led to consumer dissatisfaction and a loss of confidence.”

According to Leporati, following the quake, Chilean television exacerbated the problem by focusing on the few buildings that were destroyed, without mentioning the thousands of buildings that did not suffer any structural problems. “Public opinion was left with the feeling that the construction companies did not rise to the occasion, but if you analyze the number of buildings constructed since 1985 – after the previous earthquake – the Chilean construction sector should get a grade of 10 [top grade] for the [latest] earthquake because very few buildings fell,” Leporati says.

Nevertheless, when people turn on their televisions and see a building that has totally collapsed, he notes, it has a very powerful impact. “Public opinion makes generalizations nowadays, and it is firmly convinced that construction firms cannot be trusted.”

“The [construction] industry has not learned how to respond in a timely manner, and with a communications strategy that counteracts the loss of confidence in the sector that has resulted,” says Francia Schurmann, professor of marketing at Adolfo Ibáñez University. “Even some of the construction companies that did not suffer any failures have not figured out how to change their communications strategy to tackle their image crisis.”

Companies have a great deal of work to do to restore the public confidence that they need if they are going to win over customers, suggests Guillermo Bilancio, professor of marketing and strategy at the Adolfo Ibáñez University. “It is a hard enough challenge during times of general distrust, and it could take a long period of time. For these companies, there is no alternative to working in this market; these are the companies that will play an important role in rebuilding the company.”
One way to rebuild public trust is for the sector to certify the quality of its construction, explains Muñoz, “by using independent certification organizations such as IDIEM, the Catholic University’s institute for materials research and Testing, and DICTUC, the Catholic University’s institute for scientific and technology research.” He also recommends that industry comply with certain international norms related to earthquakes, such as ISO 3010: 2001 (which covers the design of structures and the impact of seismic activities on structures). They also need to let potential clients know that they have obtained these certifications.

Other Sectors That Lost

Other sectors that have also lost their image and credibility include the utilities, electricity distribution companies, and providers of potable water, notes Schurmann. That happened because the population experienced widespread interruptions in the supply of these services after the earthquake, and following the resulting response efforts. “These companies also have not figured out how to inform the population about any potential cuts in service in the future,” she says.

Cellular telephone companies are in a similar situation, adds Leporati, because consumers have had to do without their services after the earthquake, as well as after the tremor of 6.9 degrees recorded on March 11 during the ceremony that marked the end of the administration of President Michelle Bachelet, and the arrival of current President Sebastian Piñera. The entire population was unable to make cell calls, and very few people were able to send text messages. “In this case, reality clashes with the advertising that these companies are doing,” says Schurmann, because those campaigns emphasize normalcy and the continuity of their operations.

For example, Entel PCS, the cellular phone provider, says in one of its campaigns: “To the degree that electricity service becomes normalized, [wireless] connectivity will also return to normal.”

Nevertheless, some industries will benefit from the disaster, according to Uribe. One of these is retailing, which “has gained visibility thanks to the fact that it led the social assistance programs for the rapid deployment of what he calls ‘plasticity’ — that is, ‘1 plus 1’ plans — as well as because of its logistics capabilities. Retailers were able to reach the areas affected by the quake with trucks that carried [their logos, such as] Jumbo, Unimark and Tottus – all of which are supermarket operators – as well as with food, clothing and mattresses for those who were in need.

In terms of marketing, the biggest winner is the banking sector, notes Leporati. In its messages, “it offers a direct and clear benefit to the consumer, such as, for example, lower interest rates for consumer loans; and that is something that has become a reality.”