It feels like we’ve been losing cultural icons—legends, really—at an accelerated rate lately. Something most brands didn’t need to concern themselves with for the most part, up until social media hit critical mass. Now each time the news breaks of a famous person’s death, our feeds are immediately filled with tributes, outpourings of sadness and yes—the dreaded “branded condolence.”
Um, yeah. Embarrassing. (Don’t cue the violins.)
Take the news of Prince’s death and the trending #RIPPrince hashtag. Instead of sharing in the grief or honoring the celebrity, a lot of brands looked like ambulance chasers, striking while the iron was hot. That’s because their social teams don’t understand the difference between relevance and culture-jacking. Allow me to explain.
Relevance occurs when a brand aligns itself with a conversation or event that shares its values or purpose. Culture-jackingoccurs when a brand capitalizes on a conversation or event that is trending. Big difference. A true condolence should be an expression of sympathy or should honor the deceased. It should never be treated as a branding opportunity, which is usually the case.
If you haven’t clearly outlined your brand’s approach to death announcements, it’s time to start the conversation. I’m not saying your brand can never lean in on the death of somebody famous, but it needs to be done thoughtfully and purposefully. Otherwise, you’ll be forced to delete or defend your mistake.
To be safe, here are three basic brand rules for dealing with death:
1. Your brand should function in a heightened state of respect.
File the PornHub use of Prince’s “formerly known as” symbol under #FAIL. Honoring a celebrity is one thing. Appropriating their name or likeness is another. PornHub morphed the symbol to replace the “P” in their logo on their website. Yes, Prince was pro sexuality and sensuality. But co-opting the symbol doesn’t honor Prince. It was his name, not a font option like Calibri or Times New Roman. Simply turning the logo purple would’ve sufficed. In my opinion, they should’ve left it at the “heaven got a whole lot sexier” tweet and called it a day.
2. Your brand should never be the center of a condolence message.
3M blew it. As did Cheerios, Hamburger Helper and Pantone. Instead of making Prince the focus of their social posts, they made themselves the focus. The images screamed, “We found a cute way to make our brand/product fit into this culturally relevant moment” as opposed to “We are deeply saddened” or “We want to honor the passing.” And, while the intent may have been purposeful, the executions were a far cry. And you can’t take insincerity back. It lives in perpetuity. Blame the internet.
3. Beyond the obvious fact that death is sad, ask if there is an actual reason your brand would mourn the loss or celebrate the person’s life.
When the Minnesota Vikings tweeted about the loss, it felt sincere. Prince was a Minneapolis native, and a huge badge of honor to the state of Minnesota. So naturally, a tweet from the team would make sense. MTV and Hard Rock Hotel also tweeted—one with song lyrics about celebrating life and the other with one of his iconic stage outfits—hit the mark as well. Both have deep ties to music and Prince, so his loss would deeply impact their brands.
Again, I’m not saying a brand should never participate in honoring the death of somebody famous. The point is to be thoughtful. Ask the why, then determine the how. We want to honor our cultural icons when they pass, not steal their thunder. Having a plan and using a sensible level of judgment can be the difference between participating in a cultural moment and hijacking a conversation. After all, death is a serious matter and shouldn’t be treated like another fleeting trend in the social sphere.
Image sources: Twitter.com, Pornhub.com, jimieye from flickr.com – CC BY 2.0