On the anniversary of hurricane Katrina my thoughts turned to disaster relief and marketing.
One year after the storm newspaper articles express shock and indignation that many survivors are still waiting for aid from the federal government. But we shouldn't be surprised that FEMA failed to meet people's needs.
That's because FEMA, like most disaster relief in the United States, is patterned on socialism. Socialism advocates for command economies where the government controls and regulates production, distribution and pricing according to its economic development plan. FEMA is simply working the only plan it has any hope of executing by delivering centrally distributed, homogeneous supplies to a heterogeneous group of people with wildly divergent needs. No wonder it doesn't work. Such a system can't meet people's needs because it stands no chance of identifying them in the first place. Need a baby crib? Too bad. Have more cheese instead.
This is the model that created the disaster we called the Soviet Union. Why do we think it would relieve the disaster we call Katrina?
In market economies, by contrast, production, pricing and distribution issues are resolved by market forces where an army of entrepreneurs identify niche needs and meet them with diverse solutions delivered through a distributed network. Need a baby crib? What color would you like?
I first noticed this contrast last year while preparing to move from Michigan to Tennessee. As I sorted through my attic, deciding which items to move and which to donate to Goodwill, it occurred to me that my surplus included many of the things people in New Orleans needed. What's more, that was probably true for most attics in America. If we could find a way to redistribute American's surplus possessions to American's with needs, then we could relieve disasters like Katrina without any new production. Then I realized the necessary infrastructure already exists and that with a few modifications it could be ready to go. So, here's my plan.
I propose creating a variation in eBay called FreeBay. Here's how it would work. Establish FreeBay centers in churches across America. I chose churches because they are larger buildings dispersed evenly throughout every community in America and most have computers. Following a disaster like Katrina, people would go to the nearest church and register. After verifying their identity and address, the church would give them a FreeBay account. The needy family would then log on to FreeBay, complete a profile, and list its needs in much the same way that people on eBay currently list items for sale.
Meanwhile, people in unaffected parts of the country could log on to FreeBay search for needs that matched their surplus. The person with the extra baby crib in Michigan would discover the person in New Orleans who needed the crib, make their donation electronically, and then ship the crib to the church where the family registered. Using the church as the distribution point helps prevent fraud and makes distribution more efficient by limiting delivery addresses in disaster stricken areas.
UPS or Fed Ex could deliver all the donations. The federal government's only responsibility would be to cover the shipping costs for all donations.
I tried pitching this idea last year but couldn't get a response from eBay. If you think it has merit and have contacts there, please send them this post.
All right, so what's the connection to marketing? Well, if you think about it, FEMA delivers disaster relief the same way mass marketing delivers advertising messages. Mass marketing blankets diverse populations with identical messages when what people really need are unique messages designed for their specific needs. If you are still waiting for aid from your marketing after more than a year, then you may want to alter your approach. It's the only way to avoid disaster. Spread the fire. GS