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Tragic Taste

When does showing your company's support cross the "downright tacky" line?

"The end of marketing as we know it." That's what Atlanta-based Zyman Marketing Group dubbed its survey about shifting attitudes since the September terrorist attacks. It's a fair description of the transformation businesses must make: As Americans strive to return to normal, your marketing tactics can't.

"You can't separate the political climate from the marketing climate," says Dan Reid, president of the financial and professional services marketing group at international PR firm Weber Shandwick.

But that doesn't mean taking advantage of the political climate. "[That's] worse than putting out an ad in bad taste," says Eric Yaverbaum, author of Public Relations Kit for Dummies (IDG) and co-founder and president of Jericho Communications Inc. in New York City. While Yaverbaum praises charitable donations and other efforts, he warns that you must be aware of the dreaded fine line.

It rubbed Mark Metz, CEO, president and co-founder of Optimus Solutions LLC in Atlanta, the wrong way when car companies began mixing sales and donations, and when small shops were suddenly in the flag business days after September 11. Optimus Solutions, an information technology solutions provider that touts backup and recovery services among its manyofferings, could use the World Trade Center disaster as scare tactic-cum-marketing tool, but it doesn't. "I wouldn't want to be tied to something in print regarding [September 11]-especially not an advertisement," says Metz, 39. "I think we would be much more tactful finding a positive example of a [World Trade Center-based] company that was able to succeed through all this and talking about how they did it."

Optimism is the key: In Zyman Marketing's survey, one in four people said they expect eventually to be even more optimistic about the future than they were before the attacks. Although patriotic fervor will undoubtedly ebb and flow, Zyman suggests several ways to ensure your marketing strategy plays to the nation's mood: Survey customers to gauge the likely response to new marketing strategies; ask yourself whether your brand is something consumers want to be associated with during these times; and understand that people want to be more involved in the community and at home.

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This article was originally published in the January 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Tragic Taste.

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