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.