By Published On: May 30, 2016

The death of Prince on April 21 hit people hard, especially here in Minnesota. It also raised some questions for us as marketers. Namely, what role should brands play after a significant loss or tragedy? Should they become part of the cultural conversation or stay quiet and mind their own beeswax? And if it’s okay to offer the world a collective hug, how can a company do it effectively? When it comes to corporate responses to sensitive circumstances, there’s often a fine line between success and failure.

While it’s true that brands play a large part in our lives and culture (and in many ways help shape it), consumers don’t tend to look to brands when they need support during a national crisis. We expect our leaders and elected officials to make a statement of compassion in the wake of tragedy. But does anyone really need Coca-Cola’s tender words of support? Making a statement of any kind—no matter how well intentioned—is a risk. When done well, a brand can look caring and compassionate. When done poorly, they can come off as self-serving jerks. So what’s a brand to do?

First of all, do it well or don’t do it at all. No response is often the best response. We hardly fault brands for keeping quiet. But we jump all over them when they screw up. So if you’re going say something, be careful that you do it well.

Here are some ideas for how to do just that, illustrated using examples from some of the corporate responses to Prince’s recent death:

1. Don’t make it look like an ad. If you can combine an image with words in a tasteful way, okay. But just be aware of the risks. If it can be seen as an ad in any way, shape, or form, it could backfire. You don’t want to look like you’re trying to capitalize on a tragedy in order to boost your sales. Make sure your message is all about the event—not your brand. Imagine you’re reaching out to somebody in pain. Most of the time, the simple, straightforward approach is best, as in these examples:



Sometimes, cleverness can be effective—but only if it’s appropriate and sincere. This tweet from Chevrolet worked (and was praised throughout the internet) because the brand had an important connection to one of Prince’s most famous songs. Otherwise, it could have come off as self-serving.


While the below response from Cheerios may have been well meaning, the brand took a lot of flak for this tweet, which many thought looked too much like an ad, making it seem manipulative and self-promotional. After the backlash, the company promptly deleted it.


2. Keep it short. The more you say, the riskier it is. So don’t say much. This is one instance when less is definitely more. Here’s a good example:

53. Don’t capitalize on a tragedy to sell something. Be hyper aware of putting a message into the world that might be construed as even slightly capitalizing on a death or tragedy in order to sell a product. It’s bad taste and it makes people angry. The following tweet by Getty Images linked to their website, and their bank of stock images of Prince. Pretty tacky.

64. Don’t try too hard. Don’t worry about being clever. If you’re sure you’ve got a great idea that’s also appropriate, then fine. Go for it. But don’t force it. This isn’t your big chance to show off how creative you are. It’s an opportunity to show how sincere and sensitive you are. If you can convey that, you’ve succeeded. The below tweet from TiVo happens to be clever, but more importantly, it feels honest.

75. Keep the branding to a minimum. The less the message is about you, the better. If you can avoid using your logo, so much the better. After all, you’re not doing this to sell more product, you’re doing it to connect with people. So make your statement feel more human by minimizing its corporate presence. This Instagram post has very little Vikings branding on it, giving it a more heartfelt tone:


On the opposite end of the spectrum, the below tweet from 3M—while being clever—looks much like an ad in the form of a giant purple 3M logo. Paying tribute is one thing. But when the message feels like it’s pimping your brand, the desired effect gets lost, giving it the appearance of a marketing message disguised as an expression of grief.


And so, with all the suggestions about what to do and what not to do, there’s still that nagging question of whether or not to do it at all. Should you or shouldn’t you?

Really, there’s no right or wrong answer here. Just because it’s risky, doesn’t necessarily mean corporations should stay away from sensitive issues. There’s something to be said for a brand’s effort to relate to people in a more personal way—to express their human sides by reaching out to people in an attempt to ease their suffering. After all, the most successful and enduring brands do tend to show up quite often in our everyday lives—and part of that means being there when tragedy, loss, or disaster strikes.

But if you’re going to express empathy, it’s best to keep business out of it. Remember, this is a time to be helpful, offer support, and think of others first. Successful brands don’t just sell products and services. They build great relationships.

Behind every caring brand is a group of caring people. Sometimes, the most effective thing they can do is to set business aside and be there for people in a sincere way.


About the Author: cat-tonic

Born of curiosity and enthusiasm, we’re a scrappy group of smart, passionate marketers who work hard and play hard. We show up every day and fight for our clients who are making the world a better place. We listen with curiosity, explore deeply, ask hard questions, and sometimes put forth ideas that might make you squirm. Because we believe the status quo is good for growing mold but not much else. The way we see it, change is the way forward and the magic happens when curiosity, math, science, instinct, and talent intersect.
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