Social media can be tricky. The recent death of iconic musician Prince unsurprisingly generated a tidal wave of social media buzz. Among the many heartfelt messages were tributes from big music brands like Spotify and Pandora, and even unrelated brands like Chevrolet. One Twitter post, however, stood out from the rest.
This seemingly harmless post by Cheerios went viral—the bad kind of viral. Many people shamed Cheerios for taking advantage of Prince’s death to sell their product. The weird part, though, is that other brands made similar posts. Chevrolet even included a Chevy in their tribute image, but didn’t receive nearly the same negative response.
Where did Cheerios go wrong? What should they have done instead? Here’s some advice for sharing branded content during times of mourning.
Genuine respect for your audience is arguably the most important part of branded content. One of the reasons branded content exists is because people grew tired of traditional marketing treating them like nothing more than wallets.
Cheerios’s Twitter post may have had genuine intentions, but it’s easy to see how people might think Cheerios was trying to pull a semi-subliminal marketing trick. Your content should never make your audience feel like they’re being taken advantage of.
Cheerios set themselves up for failure by inserting their product into a sensitive topic and not acknowledging it in any way; instead, they simply included the hashtag “#prince”. A sensitive topic like death deserves a sensitive approach, and Cheerios dropped the ball.
But wait, didn’t Chevrolet try to sell me a car in their tribute? Why did they get away with it? Honestly, a large part of that just may have been luck; maybe Cheerios just got people’s attention first. Or maybe it’s because Chevrolet and other brands kept their content relevant to their niche.
Chevrolet’s tribute used a car, front and center. Spotify included the name of a Prince song. NASA showed a beautiful image of a nebula. Meanwhile, Cheerios sneaks in a single piece of cereal over a generic (albeit traditional) message. It was a half measure that attempted to trade risk for wide appeal.
Even when addressing a celebrity death, branded content shouldn’t appeal to everyone; it should appeal to your audience. If your audience wants to see pictures of cars, find a way to relate cars to that celebrity. If you can’t do that, stick with a simple “RIP” displayed in your brand typography.
And leave out the Cheerio!
When in doubt, just stay quiet. If your brand has nothing to do with a recently deceased celebrity, your fans probably won’t fault you for not addressing it. However, everyone will notice if you advertise your product while most people are paying their respects.
This brings up a related topic: The dangers of automated posts. Many brands have learned this lesson the hard way. You never know what tomorrow will bring. There could be an unexpected opportunity for fun branded content, but there’s always the unfortunate opportunity for tragedy.
If you can afford it, always have a person post your content directly. That way, if a sensitive topic arises, the worst thing that will happen is nothing gets posted at all.
When handling celebrity deaths, you should always err on the side of sensitivity. If you know your audience well enough, though, you should be able to judge what will be offensive and what will be appreciated.