Why Brands Should Resist Participating in National Tragedies


Every weekday a popular retailer sends out an 11 a.m. daily deal email to subscribers.  Yesterday there was no daily deal. Just a branded message to its subscribers, which said:

“For the lives lost at Sandy Hook.  We grieve.  We remember.  We honor.”

Then the brand listed all of the first names of the children killed in the Connecticut mass murder with a request for its subscribers to donate to the United Way of Western Connecticut.

I’m sure – in fact, I know – that the brands’ intentions were in the right place.  Unfortunately, it was the wrong thing to do.

Imagine if you were the parent, grandparent, relative or friend of one of those murdered children and that email popped into your email box.  Think about how you would feel.  Can you imagine the utter anguish of coming across a promotional email published by a corporation using your loved one as the focus?  Imagine seeing your daughter’s name beneath the brand logo.

Think about how violated you would feel.

Now imagine dozens, hundreds and even thousands of brands all doing the same thing.  All of them sending emails, tweets, status updates and other missives with your daughter’s name attached to them.

Reprehensible, isn’t it?

This is why brands should resist the urge to publicly participate in national tragedies like Sandy Hook, especially when the news cycle is so raw and volatile.

How much better would it have been for that retail brand to have simply and quietly made a sizable donation to the United Way on its own.

There is no doubt that Sandy Hook is dominating the news cycle.  Dominating our thoughts.  Dominating our emotions.  We expect the news to cover it.  People to talk about it.  We don’t expect brands to do so.  In fact, more times than not, it seems callous and self-serving if brands do.

Brands need to realize that there are different rules for media organizations and journalists who cover news like Sandy Hook.  And the media pays a terrible price for it.  People hate them for it.  It is one of the biggest criticisms of the news media.

Why would any sensible brand even want to step into that?

Brands need to remember that they are not people (despite what the Supreme Court says).  People don’t expect them to mourn or to send condolences.  Nor do they really want them to.  Brand communications are about marketing (and customer service).  Their customers understand this and are willing to participate when it is fun, entertaining, informative, or leads to a coupon or a good deal.

People are not so understanding when it comes to murder, death or national crises.  They don’t care what brands think about that.  It’s not a place for brand discourse, which is why several brands got hammered for stepping into the conversation in the aftermath of Sandy Hook.  Yet many brands are having a difficult time staying on the sidelines.  They want to participate.

It’s a mistake to do so.  The best course for brands during a national tragedy?

Respectful silence.

What do you think?

8 Responses to “Why Brands Should Resist Participating in National Tragedies”

  1. Very well said. Not to mention the fact that I don’t need my favorite soft drink or shoe company to tell me to donate. I know in our celebrity obsessed culture it does often take Bono (or whoever) to back something before the masses get involved. As you said, though, these are at least still people-brands/corporations are not. At the end of the day, they have one goal. Seeing my child’s name below the logo like they’ve somehow sponsored a national mourning campaign would send me reeling.

  2. Amen … I might be able to live with a simply stated condolence on behalf of the company’s employees (perhaps a statement by the CEO or such) but more often than not, these attempts have produced nothing but gaffes and public ire. After Sandy, half of NYC was without power and I received an email promoting an offer for “Dinner in the Dark”. The brain trust running their social media actually attempted to defend it by stating they also were supporting relief efforts. Seriously. You can’t make this up … silence IS golden.

  3. Hi Jean and BlondeAmbition:
    Thank you both for adding to the conversation.

  4. Kudos George.

    It’s also pathetic to me when brands share religious messages. For instance, it’s a disease on Facebook over the past 48 hours for brands to write messages such as, “Merry Christmas!” and not the nondenominational “Happy Holidays!” I see 10x more of the first than I do the second. And as a Jew in America, it’s sad.

  5. I don’t have a problem with Merry Christmas. To me, the modern Christmas is about as religious as Arbor Day. Plenty of people celebrate the holiday – myself included – without any religion attached. I see it as a way to celebrate family by giving to each other.

  6. That makes me a little ill. I can imagine being that parent, and having your kid’s name forever attached to that tragedy. People act as if the tragedy belongs to everyone. It doesn’t. It belongs to those who suffered it. No one asks the families of 9/11 victims if they want to be reminded every single year about what happened, have their loved ones names thrown about through the media to get a story, to satisfy the masses. People think they’re doing a good thing by remembering – but you can’t remember someone you never knew. So I agree – sometimes the best thing to do, unless you are a close personal friend – is to be silent.

  7. I definitely see where you’re coming from, and I don’t disagree for the most part. I’d argue that corporations seem to be easing into roles previously occupied by governments, and to a certain extent the public DOES expect social niceties like respect for the dead. There won’t be a universal response; some families may feel violated by what they see as commercializing their loved one’s death, while others are touched by the gesture. The grieving advertisement, whether we like it or not, will become the new half-mast flag.

  8. I suspect that younger people don’t mind as much. But where do we draw the line? The brand mentioned above is now selling t-shirts commemorating the Boston bombings. Crass and presumptive. What gives them the right hijack a national tragedy as if it were a branding exercise? But I think you are right Moriah and we now get moral compass points from corporations.

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