What Brands Talk About When They Talk About Prince

Brands increasingly rely on social media to participate in the culture at large, particularly on Twitter. They’ve built “live rooms” and listening suites so that any little bend in the zeitgeist can be converted into an opportunity to demonstrate humanity, and currentness.

The death of one of music’s biggest stars, Prince, at the end of last week was a case in point with brands rushing in to join the online conversation. 3M, Cheerios, Makers Mark, Caribou Coffee, NASA, Chevrolet, Spotify and Pandora all created tweets in tribute.

While most of them were met with indifference, a few like Cheerios (see below) were responded to so negatively that the brand ended up taking the tweet down.

On the other hand, Chevy’s tribute seen at the top of this post was repeated as a print ad the next day in a number of national papers and garnered praise from several of my industry colleagues. Still, some folks like Digiday’s Copyranter cried foul, calling it “…classless and tasteless.”

So is it ever OK for a brand to enter this kind of conversation? Copyranter’s answer is emphatically “No!” but I think there’s some nuance here and that Chevy’s approach was for the most part, the example of doing it right. So why do I think Chevy was right and Cheerios wrong?

The central question is, what gives your brand the right to talk about this, whether it be the death of Prince or national pretzel day?

Now the Cheerios tweet wasn’t horrible, it just felt off — inauthentic and for some people exploitative. Did General Mills and their Cheerios brand have a right to talk about Prince? Kind of. Prince is strongly identified with the city of Minneapolis where he died at his Paisley Park compound. General Mills considers Cheerios to be a Minnesota brand, according to AdWeek, so therefore felt safe talking about this. The problem is the public doesn’t think of Cheerios as being connected to any geographic part of the country, and the image and copy don’t help connect the hometown dots. The connection feels tenuous even if you are aware of it, which most people wouldn’t be.

So why does Chevy get high marks from me? Chevy has the right to talk about Prince since they are a part of his legacy in song. The connection to the Corvette couldn’t be clearer to Prince fans. “Little Red Corvette” was one of his biggest and most beloved hits. Chevy was careful to paraphrase the lyrics in a way that might seem clunky but read as a sweet tribute to many (and put them on the right side of copyright law.) Finally, they wisely chose an image of a classic Corvette rather than the current model to help remove the sense that they were trying to cash in. You can quibble with the execution but I saw friends sharing the Tweet across social platforms with nary a snarky comment and that rarely happens with brand communications.

Now I know firsthand how hard it is when brands and their agencies build a whole “real-time” apparatus and then feel the pressure to rack up cultural moments to be a part of. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to simply do nothing.

The smart way to figure out whether to get involved (and really a question that should be attached to any brand communication) is — has my brand earned the right to be in this conversation? Would that connection be obvious to the public? If not, is it one that’s easy to make? Will it seem exploitative or like a false endorsement (note that Chevy was careful not to actually name Prince — if you knew the context, you got it.)

If you can’t easily answer these questions — don’t do it.