A Direct Approach to Disaster Relief From Procter & Gamble
By ANDREW ADAM NEWMAN Published: June 2, 2011
MANY companies have donated money and goods in the wake of the tornado that devastated Joplin, Mo., and left at least 138 people dead. But in addition to donating to disaster relief groups, Procter & Gamble, the consumer goods giant, is taking the unusual approach of providing disaster relief directly.
Days after the tornado, two of the company’s brands, Tide and Duracell, arrived with their own specially equipped trailers and crews, which set up in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Joplin.
One trailer housed the Tide Loads of Hope mobile laundry, first dispatched to post-Katrina New Orleans in 2005, which provided free wash-and-fold service. The other was the Duracell Power Relief Trailer, which provided free batteries and flashlights as well as charging stations for phones and laptops.
In an era when 87 percent of Americans believe that companies should place at least as much value on societal interests as on business interests, according to a study by Edelman, the public relations firm, the line between marketing and philanthropy has grown increasingly fuzzy.
The widely lauded Pepsi Refresh Project, for example, which awarded more than $20 million to about 1,000 projects in 2010, was introduced after the beverage maker announced that it would forgo buying commercial time during the Super Bowl for the first time in 23 years and allocate funds to causes instead.
Marketers run both the Tide and Duracell programs, but while the trailers are festooned with logos, there is no overt selling.
“I guess you could call it a marketing expense because it’s run by our marketing team,” said Mandy Treeby, the external relations manager for Tide who leads the Loads of Hope program. “But Tide has cleaned clothes for Americans every day for the last 65 years, and this is so core to our purpose as a brand.”
On May 26, the mobile laundry, which generally handles roughly 300 loads a day, extended its hours and accepted 764 loads, its busiest day ever.
Dispatches from Joplin on the Tide Facebook page, with almost 1.4 million followers, have drawn hundreds of glowing comments from users.
“This is exactly why I don’t mind paying a little more for a product like Tide,” Samantha Cantrill wrote in a typical comment on May 27. “I love that you guys turn around and give back to people.”
Kurt Iverson, a spokesman for Duracell, said helping consumers in the aftermath of a storm is a natural fit for the brand.
“Spring and summer season is a preparedness time when we try to remind consumers they need to have batteries ready because storms can take your power away from you,” Mr. Iverson said.
The Duracell trailer made its first disaster outing in May after the tornadoes that struck Tuscaloosa, Ala. In the 13 days that the trailer was in Tuscaloosa, it was visited by about 3,000 families and distributed about 3,200 flashlights and batteries. About half of the visitors charged laptops or used onboard computers, often to get online to update friends and family.
“It’s just a great opportunity to really have some personal relationships with consumers that have probably bought Duracell for years but probably didn’t expect them to show up on their doorstep when they needed them most,” Mr. Iverson said.
Tide spent $177.2 million on advertising in 2010 and Duracell spent $60.4 million, according the Kantar Media unit of WPP.
The Gigunda Group, a firm based in Manchester, N.H., that specializes in experiential marketing, a term for in-person activities and events, coordinates the logistics for both the Tide and Duracell efforts.
Ross Mosher, the director of production for Gigunda , has traversed the country with the Tide unit for more than four years and said that because both water and sewer lines are often damaged, about 60 percent of the time the team has to bring in fresh water and take out dirty water.
Sometimes, Tide forgoes its truck and leases local laundries, providing free wash-and-fold services there.
“It may be that all they have is the clothes that they pulled out of the debris of their house, and when it’s a flood, sometimes the clothes are soaking wet and dirty,” Mr. Mosher said.
Laundry at Loads of Hope, which is staffed by about 10 Gigunda and Procter & Gamble employees as well as workers hired locally, is washed, folded, wrapped in paper, placed in bags and tied with a ribbon.
“People come and lean over the table and give us a hug,” Mr. Mosher said. “One of the things that every brand strives for is to have an emotional connection to their brand, and Loads of Hope provides that every time.”
Since 2006, Gigunda also has coordinated the mobile public restrooms that Charmin, another P.& G. brand, has provided in Times Square during the holiday season, and Mr. Mosher said restrooms might soon be dispatched to disaster areas, too.
With pets distressed by disasters, too, Gigunda also is discussing with Procter the possibility of outfitting a pet-assistance mobile unit, which could be linked to the company’s Iams and Eukanuba brands, according to Mr. Mosher.
“You have to be incredibly careful around natural disasters because you don’t want to be seen as an ambulance chaser, and you cannot merchandise on the back of a disaster,” said Carol Cone, managing director for brand and corporate citizenship at Edelman.
But Tide has steered clear of pitfalls, Ms. Cone said.
“What they came up with is to give superhuman powers to their brand to help out during disasters,” Ms. Cone said. “In a disaster people have lost everything, but what Tide realized is that just bringing in a laundromat gives people a modicum of normalcy, a moment of humanity.”