When Brands Cry

The Power of Humility During Times of Grief

A brand is not a company. It is also not a person. Yet it is often judged as both or either, but rarely neither. Well-managed brands understand this fine line, and can act accordingly in most circumstances, confident in a space uniquely theirs, humanistic but theoretical enough for us to find new ways to relate to that brand.

In the hours following the announcement of the death of the indescribable artist Prince, millions of people around the world gathered online to express their grief and offer their condolences. No matter the comment, the hum of admiration and solace spread through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, the entertainment world, the Washington Post, the BBC and nearly all of Minnesota, Prince’s home state.

In recent years, it has become common to acknowledge that communities can join together in grief, joy or fervor (Brussels, Boston, Cleveland, St. Louis, Chicago…) enough to be reminded that each of us has a homefront. Brands are no exception. But if a brand cares enough to participate in the moment, it best remain self-aware.

Before midnight on April 21, 2016, more than a few Minnesota-based brands mourned openly. Cheerios, surely a brand representing the antithesis of death, was among the first to grieve. The world promptly dropped their hankies and drew their swords against the brand, until Cheerios retracted. A week on, Cheerios’ lapse in self awareness still reeks of tone-deaf capitalism, an ill-fitting suit for a leading breakfast cereal better known for warm hugs and heart health.

Contrast this with 3M, whose remarkable brand management team managed to stay on strategy. I stumbled upon the 3M logo above in my Twitter feed at around 1:00pm EDT April 21, about an hour after the Associated Press reported Prince’s death. 3M’s temporary identity recalled its roots in Minnesota, its iconic status as a brand, and that the brand is paying attention – all with the ease and finesse that Cheerios lacked. Incorporating the teardrop into the identity, and changing the color of the identity itself, made the gesture sincere.

My reaction was strong and positive. 3M said it’s in mourning, and I believed. I then turned back to my desk, to the Prince playlist I wrote on my Post-It Note.


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