Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Lessons Learned From Hurricane Sandy

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It goes without saying that the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy will be felt by many for months to come. Last week, we saw first hand how businesses and individuals acted (and reacted) to the devastation and destruction, many going above and beyond the call of duty to help out those in the community who were hit particularly hard.

As brand strategists, the events of last week provided a critical reminder about the importance of brand behavior – matching what your firm does with what it says it stands for. This was particularly evident with many of the banks in the New York and New Jersey area.

An article from The Wall Street Journal writes of the disaster, “Sandy’s devastating force has led many of the banks lying in its path to resort to old-fashioned, low-tech ways of serving their customers—including stocking up on cash and recording transactions by hand with ink and paper.” In a digital, highly technological society such as ours, reverting back to pen and paper can have a profound affect on day-to-day operations. For a bank dealing with a customer or business that has been hit hard by the storm, it is incredibly difficult to deal with transactions and borrowing since there is no way to access customer accounts and information. While Sandy has certainly created many operational challenges for banks and their customers, it has also created an opportunity for banks to prove themselves to customers and (re)build trust.

A great example of this is the Shore Community Bank. They have yet to determine the damage to the companies and businesses that comprise their $113 million loan portfolio, however their concern is not about making an assessment immediately. Robert T. English, CEO, said, “It’s too early in the process to even think about going out there to try and get an assessment. Loan officers are calling out to customers and seeing how they’re doing. The topic of conversation is how they are, it’s not about the collateral.” This behavior is certainly consistent with the bank’s brand, focused on “exceeding expectations with personalized services” and “establishing life long relationships.”

Conversely, Bank of America’s brand messaging focuses on strengthening the community through “service, commitment and philanthropy as well as a history of helping people.” However, they experienced some backlash from customers affected by Hurricane Sandy. While many global banks such as J.P. Morgan Chase, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo are providing automatic fee waivers to customers living in areas affected by the hurricane, Bank of America was not providing such waivers automatically, only if a customer calls to explain the specifics of their situation. Even though Bank of America has donated a generous $1 million to a Hurricane Sandy disaster fund, local customers affected by the storm are still feeling the negative impact of the policy first hand, and voicing disapproval. One woman took to the company’s Facebook page, calling the move “petty and classless.”

Financial institutions that ‘walk the walk’ prove that staying true to brand messaging is key to gaining their customers trust. While companies should always be aligning their brand messaging with actions, times like these allow for a prime opportunity to prove themselves. Wells Fargo’s company vision says they “stand together with customers and communities.” To prove their commitment, they produced a YouTube video featuring employees working at banks in areas affected by the hurricane, explaining how they will remain open to serve customers. Citibank claims to “enable progress, focusing on serving communities.” They have taken to their Twitter page to update customers about local bank openings in affected areas, even allowing customers to use a Brooklyn bank location for a coat and blanket drive aiding hurricane victims.

There is a valuable lesson here for any company: matching what you say about your brand with how you say it (your brand actions) is critical. It’s not enough to talk the talk–aligning messaging with brand behavior ensures more effective communications and can help a firm emerge even stronger.

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