I was at work when the first reports of Prince’s death popped up in my new alerts around 10:30 last Thursday morning. Like millions of people all over the world, I was stunned. My husband and I had just seen Prince perform in Atlanta the week before and (as usual) he was incredible.
Like the rest of the world, I watched the tributes on television and online and I poured my heart out on social media.
Some tributes were simple and beautiful.
It was touching the way buildings and landmarks all over the world were silently lit up in purple lights.
Of course, some of the landmarks – like Niagara Falls – were actually lit in purple to honor Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday, purple being the color of royalty. But, most of the bridges, stadiums and buildings were lit up to honor The Purple One himself.
There was also some beautiful skywriting above the jazz festival in New Orleans featuring the symbol Prince used during his feud with Warner Bros. over ownership of his name.
Several Broadway shows, including Hamilton and The Color Purple, concluded their performances on Thursday and Friday with lively singing and dancing, celebrating Prince’s music and creating a moment of joy for the actors, audiences and viewers online during such a sad time.
Of course, whenever something like this happens, brands begin to insert themselves into the story and the global consciousness through social media.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes, it can be viewed as a crass attempt to exploit a tragedy.
Here are some of the good and bad attempts at brand commentary on the death of an icon.
The New Yorker created a special and rather beautiful cover for today’s issue, which they released online Thursday. This worked because it was simple and captured the emotion of the day.
In a similar fashion, Google created a Google Doodle with purple rain falling on the logo.
Some branded tributes made sense because of a connection they had to the legendary artist. Chevrolet, for example, had an obvious connection through Prince’s song “Little Red Corvette.” So, it was nice to see a red corvette in the brand’s news feed referencing a lyric from the song, “Baby that was much too fast.”
Porn Hub took a similar tactic by changing their logo to incorporate Prince’s symbol. They also referenced the Prince song “Darling Niki” in a risqué post.
And, in a more G-rated Tweet, the site posted a comment that “heaven just got a whole lot sexier.” Given Prince’s status as a sex symbol, there was enough relevance here to make most people smile.
NASA shared a Hubble photo of a purple nebula and later pointed out that there is the vague image of a man playing guitar in the cosmic cloud.
The Minnesota brand, 3M paid tribute in a way that drew both cheers and jeers, depending on who you ask. Some felt it was a lovely tribute (myself included) from a company headquartered in Prince’s hometown and others said it felt like an advertisement.
Another Minnesota brand, Cheerios attempted a similar tribute post in social media, featuring the message “rest in peace” with a Cheerio over the “i” which was met with backlash from angry fans who felt the brand was exploiting the tragedy.
Cheerios has since deleted the Tweet.
Now, you may think music-related brands like Pandora and Spotify would be an obvious fit to acknowledge the death of a music legend, which they did.
But, given that Prince despised digital streaming sites and, in fact, actively pulled his music from Pandora and Spotify, some felt their tributes were in poor taste. Of course, others recognized that the musical connection warranted commentary. This is always the challenge with inserting your brand into a tragedy – the end result is up to personal interpretation.
Now, if you do want your brand to comment on a tragedy, the worst thing you can do is talk about yourself. It should be all about the situation – not your brand.
This is a lesson Lenovo learned the hard way when they received harsh criticism for trying to align their brand to Prince by claiming to stand for the same things.
The brand received such harsh criticism for exploiting Prince’s death, they not only removed the post, but also issued an apology to his fans.
It’s also a good idea to make sure your brand is in some way relevant to the situation.
The whisky brand, Maker’s Mark felt the wrath of Prince fans when they changed their customary red wax on the bottle to purple. Simple enough, right? The problem is that Prince was famously a non-drinker.
Maker’s Mark has since removed the Tweet.
Hamburger Helper saw similar backlash for their social media post, in part because they included their brand mascot in the comment, “a glove can only take so much sadness” and also because Prince was a well-known vegan. Without a relevant connection to The Artist, the post came off as purely self-serving.
THE DOWNRIGHT AWFUL
But, in my opinion, the most epic fail of all came from Getty Images.
The brand posted a photo of Prince – with the Getty watermark – and included a link to where people can BUY images of the musician.
This didn’t just “feel” like a promotional ad. It was one. The brand was literally trying to make money off of Prince’s death, just one hour after his death was officially confirmed.
As you can imagine, the internet let Getty have it:
Getty has since removed the post.
HOW TO DO IT RIGHT
So, the next time a public tragedy strikes and you are considering inserting your brand into the collective mourning process, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I have any automated posts planned that can be misconstrued or can come off as crass in light of the tragedy? Oftentimes, we schedule social media posts far in advance and it can be easy for the original context to change during a national or global event. So, step one should be to check your content calendar and stop or remove anything that is questionable.
- Does my brand have any personal connection or relevance to the tragedy or situation? If the answer is no, you may not want to comment at all. If the answer is yes, then see the next question.
- Does my post in any way promote my brand or feel like a commercial? If the answer is yes, either don’t post, or change your post to remove all references to your brand or products.
- Does my post offer a genuine and relevant expression of sympathy? If your client is adamant about joining the conversation, a very simple and sincere expression of sympathy is the best course of action. Don’t try to be cute or clever. Consider what you would say if you were talking directly to the victims. You wouldn’t make a pun to a widow. So, don’t do it online.
Let me know if I missed any tributes (good or bad) or if you have additional tips for brands.