On brands, death and social media


While 2016 hasn’t left us with a lack of things to talk — and argue — about, there’s one thing that most people will agree on: We’re collectively about ready to see this year head out the door. It’s been quite a year for ups and downs across the globe, including the long list of celebrities who have passed away, leaving us to face 2017 without their company.

When I wrote the book “Trendology” (examining the data behind real-time marketing), I addressed the growing practice of brands chiming in on current events, including celebrity passings. Whether you love or loathe the practice, a growing audience expects a brand to act more like individuals vs. stodgy corporate entities — and that includes expectations around how they mourn. Brands are now, at times, expected to have a view on breaking news.

Social has, of course, changed how we mourn on an individual level, too, which is why the question has surfaced for brands. According to The Atlantic:

[T]he likes of Facebook and Twitter have opened up public space for displays of grief that had been restricted to private spheres of secular culture.

So what does a brand’s grief look like? And what should it look like? I looked at over 50 brands mentioning the large collection of public figures who passed away in 2016 and found that a few patterns emerged from those posts that, in my opinion, approached the practice with a good strategy.

I’m not going to tell brands if they should or shouldn’t post in memoriam messages, but if you’ve decided that it makes sense for your brand to do so, here are three ways to consider approaching your content.

1. Be true to your brand

If you’re going to enter a delicate conversation, you want to make sure that it makes sense for your company’s background, people and brand.

Best Buy, founded and headquartered in Minneapolis, grieved the loss of another hometown hero, Prince.

Major League Baseball remembered pitcher José Fernández after his death, with the league, teams and players posting thoughts and prayers for his family on social media.

2. Celebrate your connection

Brands joining conversations on remembrance is a delicate subject. If your team does decide that you should say something, you want to do everything possible to make sure that your message is authentic and rooted in appreciation for that person’s life — not the opportunity of a news cycle.

If the trigger for your message is a specific connection to the celebrity who has passed, highlighting that connection may help connect the dots for your audience.

OWN showed that their founder, Oprah, had a long and lasting connection to Muhammad Ali with their tweet about his passing.

A personal note from Tommy Hilfiger himself was the brand’s way to cope with the loss of David Bowie, along with an old photo of two longtime friends.

3. Don’t sell, just share

If your brand team feels this is the right time to speak for whatever reason, there’s one thing everyone can agree on: Any time people are grieving is not a time to push a product. Keep messages short and focused on the life and impact of the person the world has lost, never on you.

The NFL celebrated the life and legacy of another sports icon with this message that was all about him, and not the league.

Star Wars, missing actor Kenny Baker, made their message personal and heartfelt.

Looking ahead to a new year

As marketers, there will be days when we make tough decisions. If and when a brand should discuss current events or post in memoriam messages is not always a black-and-white issue. Many brands shy away from this practice altogether, letting silence speak for itself, and I don’t blame them.

It’s in these gray areas that we can sometimes see brands take wrong turns, but others build great messages that help them become more modern, more heartfelt and more human. The choice, of course, is up to you.

But seriously, is it January yet?

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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