When Celebrities Pass, Should Your Brand Pay Tribute?

I wrote yesterday about whether it’s ever acceptable for a brand to try and convey human emotion in its digital content, especially in the event of a beloved celebrity’s death. I was, and remain, curious about the seeming contradiction between our often-stated desire to have brands behave in a more “human” fashion online, but our frequent displeasure when a brand tries to convey shared grief, mourning, or loss.

But even if you’re one of those who accepts the premise that it’s not always inappropriate for a brand to express emotion or share in communal mourning, you have to acknowledge that most brands don’t do it with the sensitivity or respect or sense that is required to make such an expression work. Too often, brand efforts come off as crass commercialism, an effort to sell you something on the back of another human being’s death. Most marketing still seems to be too ham-handed to seem genuine at these times; instead, brand tributes most often feel contrived, unnatural, selfish, and shameless.  Which leads us back to the question of whether your brand should publish a tribute to any celebrity who has left us too soon.

Is It Ever Not Crass For a Brand To Mark A Celebrity’s Death?

To start, let’s acknowledge that there are virtually no circumstances under which there be any harm to your brand or its reputation if you don’t post a tribute. I can’t think of a single case where a brand would be damaged by not posting an acknowledgement of a celebrity’s death. As author and internet expert Peter Shankman has said on many occasions, “no company ever went broke because they decided to shut up on social media for 24 hours.” It’s a very hard case to make that your brand will suffer and people will be angry with you because you didn’t do a tribute post.

Consideration of this would eliminate 99% of the tweets brands plan on intend regarding a beloved entertainer’s death. If you’re a brand marketer, unless you work for Bad Idea Jeans it’s almost a lock that you should fight whatever urge or pressure you or your team are experiencing to “do something.” 99 times out of 100, the answer to the question “Should we post a tribute to this person?” is a resounding “No.”

And yet, there are those rare times when a brand gets it right and strikes a responsive chord with the audience. (Look no further than Chevrolet’s tribute to Prince last week for a prime example.) How can your brand strike the right tone, if your boss feels that you simply must do something?

I think there are three mitigating factors to determine whether a brand might be able to get away with acknowledging a celebrity’s death or posting a tribute.

First, did your brand have a demonstrable tie to the celebrity? Did they ever appear in a commercial for you, or serve as a spokesman or paid endorser for a long period of time? Had they ever famously mentioned your product in a work of theirs, or their affinity for your product in interviews? If not, don’t post a tribute. Absent that kind of tie, your tribute is almost certainly going to strike the audience as opportunistic and tone-deaf.

But if the celebrity in question has that well-known tie to a brand, that brand might be able to get away with a tribute. I’m thinking that when Michael Jordan passes away, Nike should probably be able to do a tribute without arousing too much ire; the connection between Nike and Michael Jordan is well documented and known to most of his fans. Other examples that come to mind include Priceline when William Shatner dies, or — before his current legal issues and troubling history became public — Coke or Jello when Bill Cosby passes away. Maybe Pepsi with Michael J. Fox, T-Mobile with Catherine Zeta-Jones, or H&M with David Beckham.

But those relationships and such ties are rare, even when a celebrity has done commercials for your brand. Just because there was once a sponsorial relationship doesn’t mean you can automatically get away with a remembrance; you have to look at how close the association remains in the public mind. Only if the association remains strong should you consider posting a tribute.

Second: Does the tribute you’re planning include your logo, your brand, or one of your products? If so, take it out or don’t do it at all. You’re just going to offend people. When you include your product or logo in a memorial, it ceases to be a tribute to a celebrity’s work and turns instead into a crass effort to capitalize on the attention being paid that celebrity to promote your brand. Don’t do it. (This is why so many were upset with Crocs’ effort with David Bowie, for example, and why I think the Cheerios post rubbed so many people the wrong way.)

The celebrity’s death is not about you or your brand; incorporating your logo, products, or tagline into your post merely represents an effort to make it so. To effectively pay tribute to a beloved entertainer or public figure, your tribute has to remain focused on that figure. You wouldn’t show up at a funeral trying to sell something, and you shouldn’t show up online trying to connect a recently deceased celebrity to something you’re trying to sell. (Think: an Aladdin Sane lightning bolt across a pair of shoes David Bowie never wore.)

The main reason I think Chevrolet’s ad worked was because they were so understated and genuine about it, and weren’t overly marketing with what they did. There was no obvious logo in their tribute, no current product, no tagline, no push for you to draw a deeper connection than what was already there. Where other brands’ efforts came off as exploitative, Chevrolet’s stood out as heartfelt, and struck a chord with shocked and saddened fans.

I’ll say again: in most cases brand tributes are a bad idea. But as we’ve seen, these two factors can, rarely, make your brand’s memorial an acceptable part of the larger conversation.

There is a third factor that I think comes into play on ever rarer occasions, but is very real and can justify a brand tribute: hometown heroism. In my next post tomorrow, I’ll write about the unique circumstance of when a public figure is so closely affiliated with a particular state or city — and so beloved by the local community in question — that brands based in the same city might be moved to expressions of shared mourning or loss.




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