Before last year, Whitney McGuire hadn’t seriously considered stashing an emergency survival kit in her home. But as 2020’s record-breaking fire season descended on the West Coast, McGuire, a lawyer, sustainability strategist and mother who lives in Brooklyn, found herself considering what she might need to prepare if climate-change-related disaster were to strike closer to home.
“I was feeling an incredible amount of anxiety about everything, and I wanted to feel like I had some agency in whatever the apocalypse is going to look like for me,” she said.
McGuire, 35, started to shop online for supplies, and stumbled into the burgeoning world of stylish emergency preparedness brands.
According to Aaron Levy, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s individual and community preparedness division, recent surveys indicate that the country is in the middle of “a tidal wave of culture change” when it comes to disaster prepping.
“I think we’re starting to see a shift in the assumption that, ‘This can’t happen where I live,’ ” Levy said.
Though government agencies like FEMA and nonprofits like the Red Cross have long sought to prepare people for the possibility of disaster, the rise of for-profit companies working in the same space reflects just how big that shift actually is.
There are companies in this category that have been around for years, catering to survivalists and former military types, such as Uncharted Supply Co. (which sells streamlined backpacks containing small shovels, stormproof matches and water filters) and My Medic (which sells extensive first-aid supplies packaged in utilitarian bags). But as far as McGuire was concerned, these brands target “outdoorsy, cis white men,” with marketing materials that often feature muscular white guys wearing flannel shirts in the forest.
As a result, a new wave of emergency preparation companies has arisen: ones that cater to a more style-conscious clientele. Foremost among them are Preppi, a Goop-approved brand that sells disaster supplies in minimalist backpacks, and JUDY, which has tapped celebrities like the Kardashians, Chrissy Teigen and the TikTok sensation Addison Rae to promote its portable generators and waterproof supply packs.
Indeed, it was JUDY’s approachable branding that caught McGuire’s eye a year after she first tried to build an emergency kit, and was overwhelmed with so much dread she abandoned a half-full shopping cart.
“It looks almost like a yogurt brand or something,” McGuire said after seeing a JUDY ad on Instagram. “It’s very friendly, and it’s kind of making the end of the world feel a little more colorful.”
That’s by design. Founded by Simon Huck, owner of the celebrity public-relations firm Command Entertainment Group and a close friend of Kim Kardashian West, and Josh Udaskin, best known for starting the buzzy if short-lived luggage company Raden, JUDY exists to offer emergency kits packaged in a format that is more inviting than intimidating.
“Emergency preparedness needed a rebrand,” Huck said. “It can be really scary, and I think a lot of folks shut down when they hear about it. So our mission has been: How can we get people to care?”
JUDY’s founders turned to Red Antler, the agency responsible for creating brand identities for Allbirds and Casper, for help in making what Huck calls the “least sexy category” more appealing.
Their approach, designed by Ada Mayer, creative director of Red Antler, hinged on tapping positive emotions, rather than exploiting the fear that so often accompanies emergency prep. Judy never shows the “after” shots of homes that have been destroyed by wildfires or flooding, only the “before” images depicting happy families occupying predisaster living rooms.
The brand’s signature orange calls to mind traffic cones, signaling caution without ringing the mental alarm bells associated with what Mayer calls “medical red.” And the brand’s logo features a chunky typeface that she describes as simultaneously “bold and steady” and also “a little bit friendly and disarming.”
“The goal was to create something pragmatic, but also very accessible,” Mayer said. “We took a potentially frightening and off-putting subject matter and made it more inviting.”
Since its introduction in January 2020, JUDY has sold more than 25,000 disaster kits, accrued nearly 60,000 followers on its meme-strewn Instagram page, and attracted 45,000 subscribers to its text-message service, which provides free emergency prep information. Huck said the business is on track to double in month-over-month growth in 2021.
Some people seem to be finding JUDY’s emergency prep resources before they find FEMA’s, as evidenced by JUDY’s FAQ page, which includes the question, “Do I contact you if disaster strikes and I need help?” (The answer, for the record, is no: JUDY is “not a real time alerting authority.”)
According to Antony Loewenstein, a journalist and the author of “Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe,” that’s just one of the potential downsides of brand-led responses to disaster.
The other has to do with these brands’ relationships to environmental politics. Though Huck acknowledges the role the climate crisis plays in increasing weather-related calamities, JUDY’s website and social media are intentionally devoid of the term “climate change” lest it alienate potential customers who deem it “too politicized” — despite the fact that Americans who think global warming is happening outnumber those who don’t by more than 6 to 1. JUDY doesn’t publish anything about the environmental effects of manufacturing its products, either.
As far as Loewenstein is concerned, this is “avoiding the elephant in the room.”
“You have increasing numbers of companies saying, ‘We can assist you to address what everyone knows is a growing climate crisis,’ ” he said. “But there’s no openness about why this is happening. They should be asking, ‘Am I, as a corporation, complicit, in supply chains and elsewhere?’ ”
Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy and author of “Disasterology,” sees other problems with market-led responses to disaster. “This individualistic approach runs into limitations,” she said. “Particularly the conceptualization of preparedness as this consumeristic process where somebody can just go out and buy a bunch of stuff, and then be fine.”
What she would like to see instead is a greater focus on holistic disaster preparation, with an emphasis on people who can’t afford to drop $195 to $995 on a Kardashian-approved emergency kit.
Huck resists the framing of brands like his as opportunistic, and compares their offerings to that of an alarm service or insurance company. And if approachable branding like JUDY’s can help “make emergency preparedness part of the zeitgeist, where people can actually talk about it and don’t feel turned off,” he said, he’ll feel as if he has accomplished part of his goal.
For McGuire, the price of JUDY products ended up feeling prohibitive, as did what she perceived to be a lack of interest on the brand’s part in serving the working-class people who tend to most need disaster relief. She’s still interested in emergency readiness for her own family, but she’s starting with prep that doesn’t cost anything, like gathering important documents in easy-to-grab, waterproof containers.
Even Huck can see the wisdom in that.
“The No. 1 thing you can do to save lives is make an emergency plan,” he said, “more so than actually having a physical product.”