Category: Business

Do Brands Mourn? Should They?

On Thursday, the unexpected death of legendary musician and rock star Prince shocked and stunned the world. Fans, especially those who grew up with his music during his biggest years in the 80s and early 90s, were devastated. Many people — from entertainers to fellow musicians to even the President of the United States — began posting tributes on social media channels as they began to process the news.

Fans weren’t the only ones. Many brands, from Cheerios to 3M, from Hamburger Helper to Maker’s Mark to Chevrolet, joined in the expressions of grief and sadness at the music icon’s passing.


Predictably, many were not happy with the brands that tried to get in on the mourning act; some brands responded by pulling their tributes, while others like 3M rode out the criticism storm. (This provided an object lesson to brands that once something is published, deleting it doesn’t keep people from seeing it or knowing that you did it.)

Prince’s death was not the first time brands have tried to get in on the act of mourning a celebrity’s passing. In January, Crocs tried to mark the passing of David  Bowie by tweeting an image of Bowie’s signature Aladdin Sane lightning bolt over a pair of Crocs — and Crocs too felt the wrath of the internet for doing so.

The criticism of brand celebrity tributes boils down to two major arguments. The first I’ve seen is that brands should not try to market on the back of someone’s death, and that tributes to deceased entertainers come off not as respectful, but simply as tone-deaf and crass. On this point, I would agree in almost every situation, though I would argue that there are rare cases where this becomes a bit of a gray area. More on that in another post tomorrow.

The second, which I saw articulated best by many participants in a spirited discussion on leading communications expert Shel Holtz’s Facebook page, is that “brands” don’t mourn or grieve; as organizations there is an implied impersonality to a brand, and that any genuine grief or sense of loss should be shared by individual employees (whether a CEO or a marketer) rather than using the brand’s digital platforms to do so.

This is where the whole debate takes an interesting turn, in my opinion. The argument is often made — by people whose opinions I respect and appreciate — that brands aren’t people, and any expression of grief or emotion from a branded account is destined to turn off an audience and make your brand look anywhere from conniving to callous to contrived. Brands exist by definition to sell something, the argument goes, and any expression from a branded account just isn’t genuine.

The challenge I have with this argument is that for most of “social media’s” existence, most experts have exhorted brands to “act more human.” “Humanizing” marketing and communications has been a buzzword, has subtitled or been the subtext of a bunch of books, and has been one of the things we say we want more from brands, since brands began jumping into social media platforms a decade ago. Talk like real people, we advise. Make sure your brand comes off as relatable and as a brand run by real people; don’t just robotically sell to an audience, but talk to them, relate to them, act human.

But when brands like Cheerios or 3M acted more human and shared their Minnesota-based emotions regarding Prince’s passing, the criticism was fast and fierce. Tone-deaf, we said. Exploitative, we argued. Even if Cheerios and 3M were expressing the emotional zeitgeist of their home region (Minnesotans having a particular emotional tie to Prince), they still shouldn’t have done it, went the argument. Brands don’t mourn, we collectively suggested; stop trying to act like a brand has emotion, and leave it to the individuals to share their feelings.

Which is it? Do we want brands to act human or don’t we? Can we really implore brands to act more like human beings and to stop talking in marketing-speak, but then complain or criticize when they do express emotion from branded accounts?

Is It Different With Death?

Admittedly, the conversation changes when we’re talking about the passing of a celebrity. All discussions of emotion shift when death is involved. Even if audiences love the personality you’ve crafted in your social media accounts, when someone dies it is all too easy to come off exploitative or like you’re trying to use someone’s passing to sell things. As a brand marketer, you have to exercise extreme caution in your choices when a celebrity dies. Those that don’t show sensitivity or compassion or decency (I’m looking at you, HomeBase) in their efforts deserve all the scorn heaped upon them.

But other brands — notably, Chevrolet — seemed to get it right with their tributes and attracted not criticism but praise for their effort.  This would seem to indicate that audiences aren’t always turned off by shows of emotion, mourning, or tribute by a brand; there are factors and conditions which can make it “okay” for a brand to share in communal emotion. (I’ll cover in another post what I think those factors are, and how brands should approach developing tributes to beloved entertainers or public figures; hint: 99% of the time, don’t.)

For now, I’m interested in the widely expressed sentiment that brands shouldn’t try to show emotion or express grief, when in the digital space we simultaneously have traditionally advised brands that behaving more humanly online is the right way to proceed.  Like with any personal situation, death brings heightened emotion to a situation and calls for greater tact and sensitivity to your communications, whether personal or branded. Just as there are people who respond boorishly or insensitively in personal interactions to a death of someone we care about, there are obviously brands that are going to blow it and look bad.

Again, let’s not talk about the tone-deaf nature of too many brand “tributes” — we’ll save that for another conversation. But should the topic be completely off-limits for a brand?

I don’t think the answer is always no. (Most often it is, but not always.) Human beings experience grief or sadness when a beloved entertainer dies. Why do we automatically argue that brands cannot? If done with sensitivity and respect, like Chevrolet’s tribute to Prince, can’t we ever accept emotional or even grief from a brand?

For now, let’s leave out the questions about how to do tributes well or when such a post sounds a resounding flat note; I’ll get to that tomorrow. Today, I’m talking about the larger question of whether expression of emotion, especially taking part in communal grief, is ever okay for a brand. Do we really want brands to be human? Or do we only want them to act human some of the time?

If the expression of personality and emotion and humanity is one way for brands to cut through the clutter of content available to audiences, and to draw a deeper affinity for or connection to the brand from those audiences, should conveying that the brand is sharing in the broader community’s sense of loss be exempt or off-limits?  Is it really that different with mourning? Sure, brands don’t “mourn” in the obvious sense — but can’t they be part of a community’s expression of grief?

It’s an interesting question for marketers and communicators to tackle. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Introducing Christopher Barger Communications

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my nearly two-decade career in communications.  I’ve gotten to help quite a few organizations determine their communications strategy and how best to go out to their audiences. I got to get in on the ground floor of a revolution in how businesses communicate with their publics as first blogging, then “social media,” then digital became an integral part of communications and marketing. (Some, if they’re being generous, might suggest that between my work with IBM and that with General Motors, I played a role in shaping how companies use social and digital platforms.) I’ve gotten to speak at hundreds of events and conferences, on five continents and in more than 20 countries. Yes, it’s been a remarkable run so far, one I am grateful for every day.

And yet, there is one move that I haven’t made yet, one that has always made me take a deep breath and smile when I thought about it. But as the greatest hockey player ever once said, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. So today, it’s time to take that shot and make that move — whether I call it a leap of faith or just one small step for a man.


Introducing Christopher Barger Communications

I’m proud to announce that I am going out on my own and am forming my own consultancy: Christopher Barger Communications. After 5 years in the agency world and almost 20 in the communications business, I’ve decided to test my entrepreneurial wings and hang out my own shingle. I am looking for the flexibility to take on clients who aren’t always on the hunt for a new agency relationship, but nonetheless have need of strategic communications planning as well as digital marketing strategies.

Many brands are doing outstanding work in digital communications, but haven’t necessarily connected their digital plans with their larger communications and business strategies. Many others have highly effective overall communications and marketing strategies, but haven’t translated these as well to digital platforms. Still others are still a bit flummoxed by the rapidly changing digital landscape and still consider content marketing, digital marketing, and online influencer communications to be something of a “black art.” (I’ve actually heard someone at a major corporation refer to it as such, I’m not just being dramatic.) And there are some, whether start-ups, non-profits, or small businesses, who don’t think they have the resources to bring on top tier strategic communications and digital content marketing help. I’m going into business to try and be a resource for all of these.

There are plenty of digital “gurus” out there who are too quickly caught up in being the first on a shiny new platform or breathlessly reporting on the latest developments in the social media influencer fishbowl. There are even quite a few strong digital practitioners who understand how to develop content and messages for digital platforms in an effective way. But few of these practitioners have the background I’ve been able to build in developing broader communications strategies that align with business objectives, or have sat at the decision-making table as marketing and communications strategies, brand narratives, and messages are developed.

Similarly, many top corporate communications strategists are strong at their craft and can build traditional messaging and communications plans, but still view digital with a sideways glance. They don’t always recognize that it isn’t just the platforms we use to communicate or market that have changed, but that the environment and audience expectations of us have changed as well. There is a greater need for storytelling — as opposed to messaging — than ever before, and digital platforms are not the only area in which storytelling is important.

I have been straddling those lines and placing a foot squarely in each camp for more than a decade. And that’s what I’m offering to clients and organizations: strong strategic communications development that ladders to business objectives, combined with strategic digital expertise honed at some of the biggest organizations in the world.

Staying Aligned With Voce Communications

Even as I go out on my own, I am proud to be maintaining my alignment and connection with Voce Communications, which I have called home for the past five years. Voce is home to some of the smartest communicators — and some of the flat out best people — I have ever had the privilege to call colleagues. I have enjoyed every minute of my time with Voce, and I am a better professional for having been there. So I am very happy to be staying connected to Voce and to continue working with Voce clients and Voce people. I’m keeping the regular clients I have as part of my work with Voce, and will continue to work with them just as I have been; for them, this transition will be seamless and there won’t be any changes. When Voce clients may have need of senior level digital or strategic counsel, I’ll be available to them when or if Voce feels that it makes sense. If a new client comes in to Voce where it makes sense for me to work with the new client team, I’ll be part of it. From strategic communications counsel to planning digital and content strategies, I’m still part of the Voce Nation, and will work closely with my friends there to keep doing the great work we’ve all been doing together for five years.

Make no mistake, this is not a divorce; it’s more like my leaving the nest to go out and get my own place, all while still being welcome at Mom & Dad’s house, where they’ve kept my room free and looking like I left it, for the times when I come back home.

The Voce Communications team are among the best you’ll find at communications strategy and execution across the board, from media relations to influencer relations to digital content strategy — especially in the tech industry. Voce also offers one of the best web development teams you’ll ever see, a relative rarity within a PR agency; the platforms team at Voce is responsible for some of the biggest websites on the Net and some of the most trafficked blogs in the world.

I couldn’t be happier or prouder to still be called a Vocian, and to maintain my relationship with this amazing agency.

An Exciting Alliance With Scott Monty Strategies

When I was at General Motors, one of the things that made me better, made my colleagues stronger, made our programs better, and pushed us to excel was the presence of Scott Monty at Ford. Scott was pushing the envelope and breaking new ground in all the work he was doing, and we dared not get too comfortable or relaxed lest Scott leave us behind.

Scott and I were often portrayed as “frenemies” during this time, but the truth was that we were always friends — before our time with Detroit automakers, during our competition, and have remained friends in the years since. But beyond being friends, we also have a deep mutual respect for the other’s abilities — and a very similar approach to how we build strategies, narratives, and content.

Scott’s been successfully on his own for more than a year now; Scott Monty Strategies is one of the best resources for insight and thinking on the communications, marketing, and digital spaces available to practitioners in our field. And as I’ve talked with Scott over the past month as I prepared this move, it became increasingly exciting to consider possible opportunities to work together. And that’s what we’ve decided to do.

As of today, Scott Monty Strategies and Christopher Barger Communications will be aligned to team up on client work that are beyond the scope of either single organization or that require the thought leadership of each team.

We’ve each had senior executive roles within Fortune 10 companies and have been party to the strategic planning, tactical execution and business focus behind marketing and communications efforts. At the same time, there are a number of corporate communications executives who are quite talented with traditional messaging and communications planning, but are having trouble with some of the finer points of digital. Perhaps they understand that digital is important, but have trouble conveying it to a team that’s been raised with traditional marketing or communications training. Or perhaps their own expertise is now taken for granted internally and they need the validation and support of an expert third party.

That’s where we’ll come in.

This partnership makes sense. We’re both rooted in the need to align communications and marketing strategies with business objectives. We both understand that effective communications and marketing must today be built on strong storytelling based on classic storytelling techniques and understanding of audience behavior, while leveraging the unique characteristics of every platform or channel.  And we both have lots of experience bringing these concepts to life with some of the biggest companies in the world.

We are prepared to put our extensive experience to work together for the right opportunities. Services include:

  • Public speaking
  • Strategic communications planning
  • Corporate storytelling
  • Message development
  • Crisis communications
  • Executive coaching
  • Influencer relations
  • Creative tactics

Whether we can help you with advisory work or a speak to your team at a corporate event, you’ll be getting decades of industry experience from two executives who have worked for agencies and corporations alike, with a high degree of success.

The Sky’s The Limit

Like any entrepreneur starting their own business, I have a vision and a plan for where I want this to go… but life and business will take their own paths and I’m sure I’ll have to pivot some in order to make things work. But I’ve long been interested in running my own show… and like Gretzky said, you don’t make the shots you don’t take. So I’m taking my shot. Christopher Barger Communications is open for business.