My dad died last year. Even writing that down in black and white, I still don’t quite believe it. He was very young, 63, and he was here with me on holiday (he lived in Scotland).
This probably isn’t the type of intro you were expecting from a brand strategist, writing about brands, for a branding publication. What does the incredibly painful reality of death have to do with brand? It actually has a lot to do with death, or rather it should, but it currently doesn’t and that’s exactly what I’d like to explore.
What does brand have to do with death? It depends on your definition.
For a long time, we’ve defined brand as a way for businesses to charge and sustain a premium. I cannot stress enough how much this is not the definition we’ll be working with today, for any brand, but especially this industry sector. This sector, also known as the “death industry” is big business, one that grew from $113.42 billion in 2022 to $122.98 billion in 2023.
But I want to put forward a more current and nuanced definition of a brand. A brand is a promise kept. It’s about aligning to a series of beliefs or a way of thinking, that allows consumers to then collect and interact with only the brands that see them, understand them and support them.
There are so few truly exceptional brands out there. And it is even harder to achieve when operating in moments of trauma: birth, sickness, addiction, death. Because we are all human. The awkwardness we feel when a loved one experiences grief; ‘Do I ask them and risk upsetting them?’, ‘What do I say?’ naturally informs the visual, verbal and visceral language used in these spaces. (It was only by walking through the process that I realised the ICU unit, a place I never wanted to think about again, looked an awful lot like the office of the funeral director.)
Black suits, blue skies, white clouds, soft non-committal language. An aesthetic, language and experience that varies between cold and distant and apologetic and confusing. Inoffensive? Absolutely. But alienating? Incredibly. And with online retailers like Amazon and Walmart offering “discount” funeral goods, this industry, as much as any, must offer more comfort, condolence, and empathy than an online transaction can.
How can brands do better in these moments?
The first thing is embracing empathy, but not the ‘Oh I’m so sorry your dad died, what can I do?’ type of empathy. When I say empathy, I mean beyond acknowledging the situation, instead seeing the unique person before you and what they need.
For me, this empathy manifests as a, ‘your dad’s died, here’s a lasagne, a bottle of wine and I’m now going to arrive just as you collapse to peel you off the floor’ type of empathy, to others it might be completely different.
When someone takes the time to really see you and what you need it’s validating, it’s grounding, it’s human, it reminds you that you are still a person and what you say and feel matters.
What does this type of empathy look like for a brand operating in grief?
Take a stance and show who you are, so those in grief can find the right fit, faster
What type of person is going to feel at home in your care? If you’re a funeral home, are you the perfect place for the big loud family to sob? Are you about vibrant celebrations of life? Or do you specialise in more complex trauma?
We’re Irish, and loud, we play music, we dance. It took me a long time to find the place that felt it could facilitate that (they were Irish too). I wish it had been easier, that there had been more obvious choices so I didn’t have to waste precious time.
Whether you are a funeral home, a grief writer, a counsellor, be something for somebody, not nothing to everybody and then make it very clear and very easy to find.
Open up the conversation, allow stories to be shared
The process of death is dehumanising. Conversations distil down to practicalities – which are crucial.
But, behind the person who died is a story that the family might want to share, but they aren’t asked. Ask them. ‘Would you like to tell me a little about your dad. Is there music he loves that you’d like me to play for him while he’s with us?’ that question was a light in a darker time. Simple, but profound.
On the other side too, behind the drivers of hearses and embalmers are comforting rituals that can give solace to the heartbroken too. A friend of my mums is a funeral director, she told us that she talks to everybody she prepares, acknowledging everything she is doing so they feel respected.
How I would have loved to have found this story on the website or in the flyer of one of the places I visited.
Connect the grief dots together, acting as a roadmap for what happens next
You may be a customer service agent at a life insurer, but the person who you are speaking to is going to hang up at some point, and they aren’t going to know what to do. Who do they call next? How do you arrange a funeral? How do you cancel social media accounts?
Those who exist in the grief space often operate in a vacuum – you tell the story of death (not of life, not of the person you loved, just their death) to about 20 different organisations. None of them talk to each other, none of them dare step outside their remit. But what if somebody did? What if, when you notified your loved one’s bank they provided you with a grief basket. A book, meals for the next week, the contacts of trusted councillors, a list of who to call. What if somebody in the industry appointed themselves as your guide, because at that point somebody who knows what they are doing is a life raft.
So, where to from here?
Like giving birth to a child, death is one of the few moments in life where the magnitude and importance of the task at hand sky-rockets at the same rate your physical, emotional and mental capacities bottom out.
There is no solution to it. But, by embracing true empathy, being upfront about what you do, sharing personal stories of those who have gone before and proactively guiding those in your care, you have the power to bring the grieving back to life. Even if only while in your care, you can provide people the space and support they need to process their grief and start healing.
Cover image source: zwiebackesser