Businesses dream of phones ringing off the hook and website traffic spiking thousands of percent. But such activity can also be bittersweet and a tightrope of ethical messaging and decision making. Just ask Tornado Alley Armor, the Oklahoma-based seller and installer of high-end storm shelters, about the bittersweet truth of how disasters can mean good business.
"We’ve received an estimated 300 to 400 phone calls in the past 24 hours, our website visitor activity in the past 24 hours has eclipsed the entire month of May," Tornado Alley Armor's Monty McGee told brandchannel. Since the incredibly destructive Oklahoma tornado hit on May 20, Tornado Alley Armor has been inundated with hundreds of requests for quotes and financing arrangements. "We’ve sold around 20 units since yesterday afternoon," he said.
Tornado Alley Armor sells a variety of "F5 Certified SafeRooms" that come in sizes from the "Champion" to the "Rampart" to the 20-person "Paladin" and start at $2,895. These closet-like rooms are bolted to a foundation, are "entrapment proof," and are made of hot rolled 10-gauge plate steel, designed "to stop airborne debris from a devastating F5 rated tornado." Last weekend's tornado was rated an EF5.
"Where [sic] any of your safe rooms in Moore?" asked Tina S. on Tornado Alley Armor's Facebook page. Others on Facebook wanted to know the same. Lara S. wanted to know, "Did you have any safe rooms in the recent tornados? Any news coverage of families that survived with them?" To these inquries, Tornado Alley Armor has replied, "Yes, we have safe rooms there and we received a text from one of our customers there that said our safe room saved lives there."
"Honestly, until the tornadoes of last week occurred, business was about as we expected for this time of year," said Monty, explaining that the company had been seeing good sales growth from a variety of efforts, including search engine optimization and social media outreach as well as that old classic, word of mouth. (Oddly enough, brandchannel found the brand when it came across a 2012 trademark application.)
"In no way are we marketing to the victims, who obviously have more pressing issues to deal with, and would have no need for our product for months to come regardless," said Monty when asked about the tricky business of avoiding the perception of exploitation in the wake of such a disaster. Monty categorized even the implication as "crass, judgmental and totally inaccurate," adding that, "Folks in Tornado Alley all want severe weather protection, they just don’t always prioritize it until it hits close to home."
But not every brand's motivations have shined through in the wake of disaster. After the 2011 tornado that destroyed Joplin, Mo. and killed over 300, Allstate released a celebrity spokesman-anchored commercial from the center of the devastation, asking "Are you in good hands?" Meanwhile, after a hurricane pounded the east coast last year, some brands provided charity services and products while others found themselves apologizing after making light of the disaster.
Following the tornados in 2011, storm shelter sellers saw a spike in sales, with StormShelters.com telling CNN it saw its sales double. Other shelter sellers have seen similar sales increases. After the recent Oklahoma disaster, storm experts have predicted another spike is likely, but experts have also warned that consumers buying out of panic are sometimes not careful about quality.
"For the most part, the public doesn’t know the questions to ask, and have only heard a few of the industry hot words. 'Texas Tech,' 'F5 Impact tested,' 'FEMA'," said Monty, addressing how education is one of the biggest challenges for his brand. He explained that claims like “FEMA approved” are routinely used but because the industry is unregulated, "there is no mandatory verification process to ensure the claims being made are legitimate." Monty points to the National Storm Shelter Association as the "gold standard" for room design and compliance but he adds that the NSSA's requirements for its members are "only recommendations, not federally mandated requirements." He sums up the current situation for the consumer as "scary." For this reason, Monty says, Tornado Alley Armor has made it a point to stuff its website with as much educational content as possible.
It's an unfortunate, bittersweet fact of business for storm shelter providers like Tornado Alley Armor or its competitors like OkStormShelters that it's in the shadow of tragedies like last weekend's that business is at its best and messaging at its most effective.
"Leslie, my wife and partner, and I often chuckle at trade shows and state fairs at how many people walk by, point at our display and say to their companion 'now that’s what we need…right there,'" concludes Monty. "The sad part is that while most understand the need, few follow through."