Rock, paper, scissors — the content that you share shouldn’t be left up to chance.

When Is It Appropriate for Brands to Comment on Celebrity Deaths?

By Niclas Hulting

Clickbait title aside, this is a discussion that is as old as time. And by time, I mean for as long as brands have tried to “engage with audiences” on social media. The question posed is, should brands share their condolences when a celebrity dies? We don’t think so, but let’s look at a few exceptions, and tips, to keep your brand from committing a social media faux pas — one that could go viral for all the wrong reasons.

We care about what brands think and say — just not in regard to this particular topic.

It’s a hot topic, right? This Mashable article about it spurred conversation in our office, which, in turn, gave us the idea to share some of our thoughts about this curious practice.

Brands Aren’t People and People Aren’t Brands

First, we can gladly say that brands do not have to express their condolences when someone dies. They just don’t have to. No one is waiting for a brand’s take on a celebrity death. No one is going to say, “I am glad that Brand X tweeted that photo of Dead Person. It really makes me care about Brand X more.”

Michael Jackson was widely loved, but consumers can sniff out disingenuous well-wishes much better than you can disguise them.

No one is expecting brands to chime in. It’s not one of those expectations that we have for brands. It’s OK not to say anything. It won’t hurt a brand’s bottom line if it doesn’t express its condolences publicly on a social platform. I dare say, no one really cares about what brands think in this instance. We care about what brands think and say — just not in regard to this particular topic.

We (the marketers) try to focus on personalizing your brand experience — and adding personality and voice to brands.

The only time we care about what brands put out after a celebrity death is when what they say is in poor taste. This seems to happen a lot lately. Maybe social media managers now have boilerplate tweets in store for a set number of celebrities so that they can yell “First!” and harness that social buzz. Is it just like when newspapers have obits already written for certain people? I don’t know. What I do know is that we, the people, don’t care about what a brand’s sentiment is in regard to celebrities that die. That is unless they do something like these brands did. Then we care.

So if there’s not really an upside, why do brands do it? Because marketing is all about humanizing brands these days. We (the marketers) try to focus on personalizing your brand experience — and adding personality and voice to brands. Some brands do a good job with this. Some don’t. But the push, and the trend, is to tie brands and people together and blur those lines — for better or for worse.

This can unleash a whole lot of different problems.

Complexities of Brand Voice

Sure, brands are made up of people. People work for brands. But people aren’t brands. And brands aren’t people. Your brand has a voice, sure, but in most instances that voice is not a singular person. Your brand has a voice and tone. That voice needs to stay consistent, but the tone can be subject to slight alterations, depending on audience, channels, media, etc. But your brand’s voice isn’t a singular entity.

The bottom line is that no brand’s bottom line has ever been positively affected by the time you spent crafting the perfect celebrity death post

Your brand voice is a feeling, a color, perhaps, or smell. It’s a rich memory that you can conjure up when it’s needed. But your brand isn’t your friend. It’s more like an acquaintance. The relationship is determined by our feelings for it, and our feelings are created from our experiences with said brand. And I would wager to guess that those feelings don’t conjure up tweets of condolences or status updates with clever puns trying to tie your brand together with what is in actuality an event of sadness.

Once you’ve ticked off your consumer base, it’s funny how little an apology will get you.

But surely there are times when it’s appropriate to comment on these things.

Sure, there are always exceptions. There are always instances of abnormality in marketing. In certain industries it makes total sense to acknowledge a celebrity death.

This Is When It Can Be Appropriate to Talk About Death on Social Media

If you’re a radio station that plays the best of funk, it might be your duty to post something if a musician passes.

If you’re a film production company, it might make sense to honor an actor with a story from that time when that actor was part of one of your productions.

If you’re a sports or athletic brand, it might make sense to highlight one of that athlete’s biggest performances.

Now this doesn’t give you carte blanche to create something completely helter-skelter, but it gives you an opportunity to be sincere and emotional. Maybe a little bit human.

So there are certainly times when the level of appropriateness is skewed in your brand’s favor. But most of the time, if you’re a large national brand, it probably doesn’t make any sense for you to scramble to create something for Twitter in the hopes that someone notices how much your brand cares. The potential payoff isn’t worth the investment.

4 Tips for Hashjacking Success

So if there are times when it’s appropriate to share something for your brand, you should at least make sure you have some swim lanes to stay inside. Here are a few tips that may be helpful when and if you’re at the helm of a brand’s social media and you’re thinking about hashjacking a major event:

  1. Be sincere. If you’re creating something with the hopes of it going viral or receiving a lot of clicks (insert other metric), you are more than likely going to fail. But if your tribute is sincere, simple, and related to said dead person’s life’s work, or something similar, it might be totally appropriate to share those feelings and thoughts.
  2. Don’t get visually fancy. Sure, you have a graphic design person in the office. Sure, that person can do a mashup of your brand’s logo and whatever visual or graphic cue that can be attributed to said dead person. But you probably shouldn’t. There are some examples of brands doing a good job of this, but most of the time it fails, fails, fails.
  3. Keep it simple. A short message expressing condolences. A short memory or post that is relatable from the brand’s audience’s standpoint would be OK. The bottom line is that no brand’s bottom line has ever been positively affected by the time spent crafting the perfect celebrity death post.
  4. Probably don’t do it. There really isn’t a reason. The upside doesn’t match the downside. The risk-versus-reward matrix is skewed heavily toward the risk section. So probably just don’t do it.

This topic is nuanced. It has a lot of gray areas. These are what spur and fuel the conversation. If it were up to us, we would recommend to you not to say anything if the opportunity arises. But we’re just incredibly brand-conscious here at Britton Marketing & Design Group.

Oh, before I let you go, if you’re in a position to share content for a brand, you might want to create a social media response plan. This plan will let you take a structured approach to social commentary and will empower you to make actionable and consistent decisions for your brand. We highly recommend creating one that is tailored for your internal processes and your brand’s voice.


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