Social media has given brands a larger soapbox than ever before. During times of tragedy, it can give them a platform to help victims immediately.
During the Paris attacks, many companies offered services for free to help out or tweeted support for the victims. Uber suspended surge pricing and sent out message alerts advising Parisians to stay indoors in accordance with what authorities were stating. AirBnB offered free accommodations for stranded travelers on the company's Disaster Response page.
"Before it was just ads on TV," said Anush Prabhu, a partner at advertising agency Deutsch. "Brands didn't have any ability to comment. Today, brands are getting into conversations that are more relevant to people."
But with today's skeptical public, displays of support can backfire. Not everyone was in favor of Uber changing its cars on its app to the colors of the French flag. The Independent noted that it felt "opportunistic," considering the company's documented battles with the government over its UberPop service (which is similar to UberX in the U.S.). Some people spoke out against changing Facebook's option to change profile pictures to include a French flag overlay, saying it increased more hatred against certain groups.
"It is important to acknowledge that brands are the new collective mindset of society," said Alain Sylvain, a brand strategist and founder of Sylvain Labs. "They represent the new collective voice the way a church would or a school would in the past years. Brands have a role to play in these collective moments of grief."
Sylvain said that because brands have this direct pipeline to the public, many communications strategies emphasize coming across as a contemporary peer rather than a company. The problem is the public isn't buying that they are just like regular people no matter how many hashtags and how much slang they use, he added.
"Brands need to stop pretending they are people, and act like the corporations they are. … Consumers are savvy enough to realize that brands are driven by corporations that are driven by profit. It's almost better to acknowledge that reality," he said.
Sylvain said this attempt to become one with the public is why the backlash to Starbuck's red cups was so loud. He said the coffee company has cultivated an extremely loyal audience by trying to embed itself with the community, and its consumers feel like they have the right to speak for the company. Online media can make a vocal minority seem like the majority, he added.
"It's actually a statement about how relevant and connected they are to the users," he said. "But it's an extra burden on a brand when they do something that people feel like it doesn't represent them. It's funny that people don't care when they write the wrong name, but they flip out when they change the color of a cup."
In cases of tragedy when companies try to insert themselves in the situation, Sylvain said it can feel false and a marketing opportunity. He believes most consumers don't expect brands to reach out during times of crisis. Unless their outreach provides direct utility for victims, it can come off as trite.
Deutsch's Prabhu said companies whose actions during times of grief are genuine to their missions seem to resonate the more. He said it's why people were so skeptical against AirBNB's passive aggressive "letters" to San Francisco's government that suggested they were misappropriating tax funds that were posted as advertisements on bus shelters. Residents were quick to point out that the company hadn't paid taxes themselves.
Meanwhile, Sylvain said AirBNB's opening its rooms for people stranded in Paris worked since it was part of the company's core business.
"The first thing you have to figure out is if it is part of your brand's DNA," Prabhu said. "It shouldn't be advertising."
In Uber's case, Sylvain felt the company did the right thing by providing services such as suspending surging prices. However, when it expanded its Paris outreach to globally changing the car colors, those facets became secondary to helping out with functional value, which is why backlash began. However, it should be noted that Uber has used the flag colors in the past, including on Veteran's Day and when gay marriage was legalized during the U.S.
(When asked for comment, Uber responded with the following statement: "Our hearts go out to everyone in France after these horrific terrorist attacks.")
"People want brands to show some humility after the crisis," he said. "The smartest thing you can do is be sensitive and do little. If you must do something immediately afterward, it should be subtle and muted."