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03.08.21

Power Struggle: Brand Management Lessons from the Texas Snowstorm

by Ben Gaddis and Collette Eccleston

It’s been a rough few weeks in Texas. Austin, where T3 has been based for over three decades, was hard hit — as was the larger Texas “brand.” 

Texas prides itself on its independence, the type of place where things operate differently (I’ve been asked five times in five years if I ride a horse to work…). In Texas, the geography and its people are intertwined: “You don’t just move to Texas. It moves into you.” But this recent weather event exposed cracks in that Lone Star mindset while highlighting new opportunities for both the state and brands in general. 

What does this event teach us about how humans operate in a crisis? 

How do we expect brands to show up in a crisis? 

How can brand management be used in between crises to build trust?

The Human Response and the Psychology of Brand Connections

In times of crisis, we as people don’t think very well. We’re hyper-focused on trying to solve a problem, usually with tunnel vision. Emotions, like anxiety, swell and move us to action to solve the immediate problem. This doesn’t, however, necessarily lead to clear thinking. In other words: crises push us to act on emotion with short-term solutions, sometimes at the expense of logic or long-term sustainability. 

When our sense of security is threatened, we seek safety, trustworthiness, and reliability. We feel small and vulnerable. Knowing some bigger entity — be it a government or a brand — has our backs, instills mental comfort, and, after the disaster pangs fade, wins our loyalty.

People prize consistency, and respond most instinctively and enduringly to implicit persuasion: show us who you are and how you operate and let us connect with you from an internal desire, rather than promoting your messaging explicitly, which may spark resistance and criticism. As with most relationships, actions-over-words matter most when it comes to managing brand connections. 

The Importance of Brand Management In a Crisis

Brands are part of our culture, members of our communities. So when humans are looking for short-term, immediate fixes to big problems, brands can recognize that need/want and work to fulfill it in the communities in which they operate. Helping people get food is one need, and part of why H-E-B, the San Antonio-based Texas grocery chain, has become even more of a cult favorite during the dual pandemic/weather disaster crises. Some are calling H-E-B “the moral compass of Texas,” as they donate to food banks, pay employees overtime for working through the disaster, let customers leave the store with food without paying during the power outage, and showcase the pandemic response plan they developed not in 2020, but over a decade ago. It’s no wonder people are proclaiming, “H-E-B for president!” 

Other companies across the country are also rising to the occasion to assist with a type of brand-driven “wartime mobilization” effort to assist with the pandemic. Ford and The Gap are donating over 100 million masks; sports arenas are being converted into vaccination sites; Uber, PayPal, and Walgreens are getting people to their vaccine sites for free; companies like Target, Best Buy, and Dollar General are offering employees PTO while they get their shots. 

Empathy, compassion, preparedness, generosity — these are not words consumers associate with most or many brands. And yet, brands like H-E-B make the case for why it pays to tap into your humanity as a company to connect with the community you serve (it’s no wonder their employee retention often endures for decades). 

Logistical challenges affect brands, too. Even if the warm and fuzzy intentions are there, digital tools and thoughtful planning (way before the next blizzard strikes) are key to effective execution. Updating hours on a daily basis or staying nimble enough to shift logistics operations to accommodate radical disruption require forethought and organizational planning. This is the moment for brands to reflect on their current brand management response and start preparing for next time. Because: there will be a next time. 

Top considerations for brands:

As a brand, here are some key questions to ask so you are ready to respond to a wider range of human needs in times of crisis.

  • How do you give yourself the space to respond to something you can’t predict? 
  • What are your blind spots? 
  • What’s your zero revenue plan — the emergency operating system you hope you’ll never need, but are prepared to execute if you do? 

What new opportunities and new consumer connections might this blind-spot-analysis and zero revenue plan offer?

Ben Gaddis
Collette Eccleston