It’s been just over a week. No one in the Boston area is untouched by the bombings and their aftermath. Certainly we, my husband and I, were lucky. At the time, we were watching runners pass our house as they geared up for the start of Heartbreak Hill six blocks ahead. We had friends—and friends’ kids—finishing near the time of the blasts, but after a brief, frantic interval we learned they were all safe. Hallelujah. Alas, not for all.
Waking Friday to a call announcing a lockdown in Newton, we spent the day indoors, much of it glued to the TV. It was surreal to realize the firefight took place a few blocks behind the Target in Watertown where I shop too often, that Black Hawk helicopters had landed by our Home Depot.
I’ve called Boston home for nearly ten years. For better or worse, I’ve been in marketing nearly three times as long. So as the past week unfolded, I couldn’t help but process some of it as a marketing observer. In that capacity, I share the following thoughts.
We are better than we’re given credit for
The world witnessed an outpouring of humanity here: Spectators and first responders rushed immediately toward danger to help. Medical personnel, primed for sprains, rallied to handle war-zone injuries. Exhausted runners headed to hospitals to give blood. Locals offered blankets, shelter, whatever they could. Companies jumped in instantly to donate both talent and treasure. Individuals throughout the country and the world shared their generosity.
How often do marketers think about this larger sense of humanity? Not often, from what I can tell, when they fill our airwaves with stupidity, snark, sexism and stereotypes, just recalling a few of this year’s Super Bowl ads. We are better than this. Where is a sense of our goodness? That goodness is present, not just after disasters. The better angels of our nature go virtually unnoticed (or occasionally drip with treacle). I’m embarrassed for my profession at the smallness and meanness that characterizes too much of our work.
Deep stories matter
When the Boston Bruins returned to the ice two days after the bombings, the crowd took over singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” Watching the video, I was deeply moved. I teared up. And I realized, for the first time, what our national anthem is about: Resilience. Jubilant crowds sang it again in the streets Friday after the suspect was captured. Resilience is a deeply American value, part of our national story, just as Tradition, reflected in “God Save the King/Queen,” is part of Britain’s national story.
These deep stories matter. In the 2011 Super Bowl, that’s what gave Eminem’s Chrysler ad (“Imported from Detroit”) such power—it was a story of Resilience.
We have other national stories. Robert Reich identified four of them: the Mob at the Gates, the Triumphant Individual, Rot at the Top, and the Benevolent Community. In the 2012 Presidential campaign, each candidate used three of these four stories extensively and differently. Romney saw rot in government; Obama saw it in private wealth and power. While Obama didn’t invoke the Mob at the Gates, Romney failed to articulate a sense of the Benevolent Community. Deep stories are powerful. (And we are better than we’re given credit for.)
You can shine in darkness
When disaster strikes, companies start wondering: What should we do? What can we do? It can be hard to craft the right organizational response, much less execute it swiftly. A traditional response has been the large ad of condolence, and these began to appear in the front section of the Boston Globe. Other responses stood out:
Smart: Barely 24 hours after the blasts I received an email from vacation-rental company HomeAway. They combed their database for everyone in the Boston area, asking if we could offer shelter to people stranded, passing along the link Google had set up.
Passionate: Full-page ads appeared two days straight with a giant, impassioned headline: “DON”T #@$% WITH BOSTON.” The discounter Cabinets-to-Go! would give 100% of sales in their four New England stores on April 20th to One Fund Boston, the charity established to help people most affected. Yes, they capped it at $100,000. But it’s still a generous, heartfelt offer, especially since kitchen cabinets are not exactly an impulse buy. You get no sense of closed-door meetings and fine-tuning. The spirit is: #@$% this, We Gotta Help.
Caring: In Watertown the day after the manhunt, I went to the wonderful Russo’s (food store) and saw Red Cross workers out front. I immediately assumed they were seeking donations and got out my wallet. No, they were there to give, out in the community to see how we were doing. Were we okay? Did we need someone to talk to? I nearly sobbed, touched by their generosity and compassion. The Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno once penned: “It is not enough to cure the plague. We must also weep for it.” So true, but it goes unnoticed. We Americans are great at resilience, pluck, and action. We’re not so great at grief. The Red Cross understands this and was there.
And then there was Brainless: We don’t mind business-as-usual at a time of crisis. Macy’s continued their multi-page One Day Sale! ads. Other advertisers ran their standard fare. Fine. But six days after the bombings AT&T blared full-page: “AT&T is #1 in Boston” touting their local network performance. In small type at the bottom: “AT&T is proud to be the official wireless sponsor of the Boston Marathon.®” Did they think this was just dandy? Did they think at all? This was a local ad—easily changed. Even Verizon, not exactly known for nimbleness and sensitivity, ran ads with “#BostonStrong. Together we will run again. FiOS” Unfortunately for AT&T, acting like a mindless corporate dolt here simply reinforces what we already believe.
Some brand roots run very deep
On Friday, the lockdown order covered six suburban towns and the city of Boston. It was a ghost town. Residents were to “shelter-in-place.” Businesses were to close—with one exception. In downtown Boston, a handful of Dunkin’ Donuts were asked by the city to remain open, to provide police with coffee and food. New England holds a powerful affection for Dunkin’ Donuts. As a late transplant to the area (and major coffee enthusiast), I don’t quite get this personally. As a marketer, though, I can only stand in awe.
A tender time
In the past week blossoms have appeared on the flowering trees. We wait for this moment through long, cold months. It is a tender time, full of promise and new growth. This week, with four deaths and over 250 people injured, thousands of lives have been changed forever. For the rest of us, the lucky ones, it’s a time to offer help, to hug our loved ones tighter, and to bring fresh thoughts to what we do every day. There is more room to bring depth, caring, and greatness to our work. The potential is in all of us. Let’s let it flower.