How To Solve The Brand Tribute Problem

Mar­keters, if you must pay trib­ute, put your egos aside and thought­ful­ly con­sid­er your moti­va­tions.

Lisa Lacy By Lisa Lacy. Join the discussion » 0 comments

Brand trib­utes should be exe­cut­ed spar­ing­ly, if at all. If you must pay trib­ute, put your egos aside and thought­ful­ly con­sid­er your moti­va­tions.

When tragedy strikes, a pre­dictable pat­tern has emerged in dig­i­tal media: Brands roll out trib­utes, which are quick­ly fol­lowed by con­sumer indig­na­tion over shame­less self-pro­mo­tion.

Prince’s death was no excep­tion.

At this point, it’s almost like mass shoot­ings in Amer­i­ca. When­ev­er this hap­pens, we – or at least those of us in the dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing indus­try – look at each oth­er and ask, “Why does this keep hap­pen­ing?” But the pat­tern nev­er­the­less repeats.

I was talk­ing to a friend about this and he said, mat­ter-of-fact­ly, “This is what hap­pens when you hand the keys to social media to peo­ple right out of col­lege.”

He may very well be right. But as some­one prone to over-analy­sis, I couldn’t let it go there.

Let’s Consider September 11

Last year, I argued the best brand trib­ute is respect­ful silence. And I stand by that.

Have you ever heard of a brand that has sparked out­rage and/or alien­at­ed con­sumers by not mark­ing occa­sions like this?

Far more often, we see brands like Spaghet­tiOs apol­o­giz­ing for ill-con­ceived tweets and being held up as gold stan­dards of tact­less­ness for years to come.

Is Silence The Solution?

In my pre­vi­ous post, I posit­ed that brands were grap­pling with an entire­ly new form of media in the post-Sep­tem­ber 11 era in which there was no Emi­ly Post to guide them. And there still isn’t.

Look at the flur­ry of Prince trib­ute roundups from some of the most respect­ed names in mar­ket­ing news – even they strug­gle to define clear brand trib­ute rules and, at times, con­tra­dict them­selves.

For its part, Ad Age notes there’s a “fine line” between look­ing exploita­tive and being “seen as cur­rent and tuned into cul­ture.” Indeed. But where is that line? Some­where between Cari­bou Cof­fee and Four Loko, it seems…

Mash­able, how­ev­er, said, “Min­neso­ta-based com­pa­nies, music brands and oth­er busi­ness­es with a clear con­nec­tion to Prince have a legit­i­mate rea­son to speak on his death.”

AdWeek, too, gave a pass to brands from Prince’s home state, along with Maker’s Mark.

Medi­a­Post was more or less will­ing to give a thumb’s up to Min­neso­ta busi­ness­es as well.

Yet it was one of those very Min­neso­ta brands, Chee­rios, that they agree will like­ly be remem­bered as the biggest screw-up of this par­tic­u­lar tragedy thanks to a tweet the Drum said had an “appar­ent lack of gen­uine empathy…[and] came across more as a tone deaf attempt to thrust itself into the con­ver­sa­tion.”

Anoth­er Min­neapo­lis-based Gen­er­al Mills brand, Ham­burg­er Helper, which so recent­ly struck gold with its April 1 rap album, report­ed­ly delet­ed its Prince tweet, which AdWeek said “suf­fered from too much brand pres­ence.”

This is When It Starts To Get Muddled…

There’s St. Paul-based 3M, which received cheers and jeers for its pur­ple rain/tear logo, as did the exe­cu­tion from Chevro­let.

To wit: Per Co.Create, the trib­ute from the lit­tle red Corvette par­ent “doesn’t feel tacky.”   In fact, Dan Solomon wrote, “It’s still cer­tain­ly safer – and often in much bet­ter taste – for brands to just let expe­ri­ences like ‘griev­ing’ and ‘sor­row’ be expe­ri­enced sole­ly by the humans they’re attempt­ing to engage with, but when brands cry in a way that’s as taste­ful and classy as this ad, we’ll allow it.”

Digiday’s Copy­ran­ter, on the oth­er hand, said the Chevro­let trib­ute is “awful in every way.”

He agreed, how­ev­er, that the best trib­ute tac­tic is to “shut up and say noth­ing.”

Oth­er Min­neso­ta brands like Tar­get, Hormel Foods, and Unit­ed­Health did just that on social. The lack of back­lash against them per­haps says more than Solomon, the Copy­ran­ter, or I ever could.

I Know It When I See It’

Tiffany Guar­nac­cia, CEO of Kite Hill PR and the founder of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Week, said she advis­es clients to jump into a news sto­ry only if they have skin in the game.

If a brand does­n’t have a direct con­nec­tion to Prince, they should­n’t try to force them­selves into the con­ver­sa­tion. It feels inau­then­tic and can cause a neg­a­tive back­lash,” she said.

But the prob­lem is that it’s up to brands them­selves to define where and when they have skin in the game. Which makes bad brand trib­utes sort of like Supreme Court Jus­tice Pot­ter Stewart’s def­i­n­i­tion of porn: “Which makes bad brand trib­utes sort of like Supreme Court Jus­tice Pot­ter Stewart’s def­i­n­i­tion of porn: “I know it when I see it.”

In oth­er words, I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly think every brand that tweet­ed about Prince was moti­vat­ed sole­ly by the almighty dol­lar. But I do think they tend to have an over­in­flat­ed sense of self-impor­tance in sit­u­a­tions like this and need to more care­ful­ly con­sid­er what actu­al­ly defines skin in the game before pulling the trig­ger.

Brands Are Not People

Because here’s the thing: Like Solomon, Mike Gre­han, CMO of intent-based dig­i­tal firm Acronym, not­ed brands are not peo­ple. That means any attempts to con­vey human emo­tion at times like this can eas­i­ly be cheap, tacky, and insin­cere.

For his part, Andrew Bolton, vice pres­i­dent of strate­gic part­ner­ships at mar­ket­ing plat­form Crowd­tap, said it’s only nat­ur­al for brands to com­ment on cul­tur­al moments like peo­ple do since they use social to human­ize them­selves. At the same time, how­ev­er, he not­ed that part of being smart in social media is know­ing when to stay on the side­lines.

Not every con­ver­sa­tion is ripe for brand commentary…ask your­self: ‘Is this a con­ver­sa­tion that relates to my brand in an authen­tic way – mean­ing is this a good fit, or is it a stretch?’

If it’s a stretch, don’t hit send and wait for the next oppor­tu­ni­ty,” he said. “It only takes a moment to lose the respect of your audi­ence, and when you con­sid­er how hard you fought for that atten­tion in the first place, it’s sim­ply not worth the risk.”

In fact, Gre­han said a bet­ter way for brands to pay their respects to Prince would have been to make a dona­tion to a music char­i­ty or to invest in music edu­ca­tion.

Does Prince need a trib­ute from Chee­rios? He nev­er endorsed them when he was alive. What if he nev­er even ate them? What if he hat­ed them? What kind of trib­ute is that?” Gre­han said. “A brand that has no con­nec­tion to the per­son who passed, no con­nec­tion to the music indus­try, is giv­ing noth­ing and prob­a­bly doesn’t have a mem­ber of staff who knows more than one Prince record.

Here’s the question…If you think Prince is so great, why did you wait until he was dead to pay him a trib­ute?”

Brand Tribute 101

While I tend to agree with the Copy­ran­ter, I’m reluc­tant to take as strong of a stance because some of the exe­cu­tions above arguably work for the brands in ques­tion.

But I will say that if lack of clear-cut dig­i­tal eti­quette is to blame for the brand trib­ute prob­lem, I’ll step in as an Emi­ly Post here:

Brands need to think of trib­utes like salt – they should be used spar­ing­ly. Or think of a brand trib­ute like mar­riage – you don’t want to do it too many times.

When the next sad event inevitably comes to pass, mar­keters need to put their egos aside and thought­ful­ly con­sid­er the strength of their con­nec­tions, as well as their moti­va­tions for chim­ing in.

If there’s no doubt memo­ri­al­iz­ing the event is the right thing to do, god­speed. Hope­ful­ly you don’t become the next AT&T, Spaghet­tiOs, or Chee­rios. But if you aren’t absolute­ly cer­tain, it is per­haps a sign you should save your per­spec­tive for a per­son­al account.

The Google Exception

That being said, Google’s Prince Doo­dle is one trib­ute that seems to have been uni­ver­sal­ly well-received, which Dana DiT­o­ma­so, part­ner at dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing agency Kick Point, says is because Google cel­e­brates so many things.

If [Google decides] that Prince pass­ing away is a major event, then it feels right for them to have a trib­ute,” she said. “Oth­er brands are jump­ing on the band­wag­on because they don’t reg­u­lar­ly cel­e­brate peo­ple out­side their brand sphere. It’s anoth­er exam­ple of why you need to rely on your brand and make a call that makes sense for the brand over­all, not just jump on every trend that comes along, hop­ing you’ll get pop­u­lar.”

Gre­han agreed Google’s Doo­dles are gen­uine, reg­u­lar trib­utes and Google “didn’t just do it for Prince.”

Chee­rios does­n’t have the his­tor­i­cal con­text of using this trope and they did­n’t con­nect with our emo­tions cor­rect­ly,” added Rebec­ca Brooks, found­ing part­ner of mar­ket­ing research agency Alter Agents. “That sub­tle dif­fer­ence made [its] trib­ute seem like cap­i­tal­iz­ing on tragedy, while Google’s emo­tion­al con­nec­tion made us all feel clos­er to its brand.”

What’s your take on brand trib­utes?

Lisa Lacy

Written by Lisa Lacy

Lisa is a senior features writer for Inked. She also previously covered digital marketing for Incisive Media. Her background includes editorial positions at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, the Huffington Post, AOL, Amazon, Hearst, Martha Stewart Living and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

Inked is published by Linkdex, the SEO platform of choice for professional marketers.

Discover why brands and agencies choose Linkdex

  • Get started fast with easy onboarding & training
  • Import and connect data from other platforms
  • Scale with your business, websites and markets
  • Up-skill teams with training & accreditation
  • Build workflows with tasks, reporting and alerts

Get a free induction and experience of Linkdex.

Just fill out this form, and one of our team members will get in touch to arrange your own, personalised demo.