How should marketers react to the death of Queen Elizabeth?
‘London Bridge is Down’, a Guardian Long Reads piece penned by Sam Knight, captured the world’s fascination with both royalty and mortality in 2017. The journalist’s meticulously researched account of what will happen with Queen Elizabeth II dies was nothing but comprehensive, documenting the royal protocol that has lain dormant for 66 years.
‘The Queen’s death will make the passing of Diana look relatively tame’ / Adobe Stock
Knight also, forgivably, documented an amount of guesswork in terms of the impending royal and public maneuvers. This time around, things will be very different – not just in terms of emotional reaction, but the way in which this reaction and the news itself will be communicated. When George VI died there were less than 500,000 TV sets in the country. When Diana died the internet had been in existence for a mere four years. The Queen Mother’s passing came five years before the iPhone was invented.
One of the few things Knight didn’t touch upon was how brands will react to the news. When The Drum reached out to him he said he hadn't received any guidance on the topic (fairly enough, he added it “wasn’t his scene”). Other than a dusty academic book written in 1992, he did not encounter any material on historical, corporate reactions to the death of a royal.
The last time a monarch died, the detritus of war was still hanging over the country. Brands played an incredibly minor role in society compared to now and there is no evidence that any made mention of King George’s death at all. If they did, no news source picked it up. The very existence of The Drum is testimony to brand activity’s growing importance in public life.
Diana’s death, on the other hand, was unexpected, tragic and shocking – enough to send shock waves through a marketing industry that had come of age in the 45 years since the death of the King. Due to the nature of her passing, auto brands such as Nissan and Green Flag withdrew their creative (which featured a car chase and a crash respectively) almost immediately, while most of the major commercial channels including ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 cancelled at least some of their advertising airtime on 31 August 1997, as well as during her funeral, to make way for news coverage.
When airtime slots did run as scheduled, many did not include spots for alcohol, automotive and insurance, which had been vetted by the broadcasters.
“The Queen’s death will be a shock that will make the passing of Diana, now some 20 years ago, look relatively tame in my view,” said Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA. “Brands must make some tough decisions quickly. Do they continue to run adverts? How do they change their social media activity? Have they in fact prepared contingency plans for just this very eventuality, as doubtless central government has?”
The consensus is that Royal Warrant holder brands will react differently to those without a crest. Ingham can imagine Fortnum & Mason closing for a day, for instance, as a mark of respect. It’s unlikely that campaigns from entire sectors will be pulled like they were following the news of Diana's death, however TV advertising will certainly be affected.
“These are called special events in the history of the news and they displace ordinary programming and associated marketing messages,” said Alice Enders, head of research at Enders Analysis. “If the event is joyful, like a royal wedding, it's a boon for audiences and the advertisers that buy slots. If the event is sombre, it will cut out advertising as it's very hard to strike the right note. And audiences don't like interruptions anyway in these ceremonies."
One British channel (which preferred to remain anonymous) confirmed it would be cancelling all ad breaks for 24 hours in lieu of rolling news. The others The Drum spoke to said they have contingency plans in place for the last days of the Elizabethan era, but wouldn’t reveal what these are. One network confirmed, however, that there would be no change to scheduling – again, anonymously.
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The recent spate of celebrity deaths has shown that brands are no longer averse to reacting to mortality, particularly on social media. The speed at which reactionary copy and artwork can be mocked up for, say, a Twitter post, means companies can jump into the flow of online mourning, reveal their ‘sensitive’ side and demonstrate their understanding of the zeitgeist. Yet these reactions can make or break a brand.
Prince’s earthly departure saw the likes of Pornhub, Pixar and Google ceremoniously turn their logos purple to no fanfare, yet those who went for less subtle approach – such as Cheerios’ ‘Rest in Peace’ with a cereal grain dotting the ‘i’ – were lambasted for profiting from death.
Cheerios deleted their tweet, but slack never forgets. pic.twitter.com/AhmDmcuVt0
— Arielle Calderon (@Arielle07) April 21, 2016
Will brands take a risk on a timely social media post inspired by the death of the Queen?
“We strongly believe that brands are more successful when they have a genuine human connection with their consumers but when there is a tragedy or event such as a royal death the brand values and tone of voice are very important,” said Tamara Littleton, chief executive and founder of The Social Element. “Dignified silence is our first recommendation but there may be brands that need to refer to it, for example those in the tourism industry. The brands that use compassion and empathy will fare well. It is important not to overdo it as you may alienate some consumers or seem insincere.
“And never try to sell something on the back of a tragedy or death - ever.”
Oliver Bingham, consultant at The Clearing, recommends that brands halt the bulk of their social plan for at least a few hours in the wake of the news to both avoid getting swept up in the “barrage of traffic” and appearing inconsiderate. After that, he reckons, they should use their judgement as to when marketing plans are rebooted.
“Speak too soon and you're 'jumping on the bandwagon', leave it too late and you come across indecisive,” he said. “It's far from an exact science - and something not worth experimenting with - so trust your instinct and only post at all if it feels right.”
Outside of tokenistic social media posts, the question remains whether brands are now expected to do more to honour the life of the UK and Commonwealth’s figurehead than they may have done in the past. Launching a fleshed out comms strategy around a high-profile death may appear distasteful on the face of it (“Imagine the scandal if it emerged a tribute was pre-planned,” said Bingham), yet companies now want to be our friends, conduct conversations and provide experiences.
If they really are more than faceless corporations, why shouldn’t they react to historical events like a person would? Could a commemorative, diplomatically designed print ad, for instance, ever be produced by a brand in good faith?
Rebecca Moody, chief strategist and founder of Salt of the Earth, believes brands that decide to pay tribute should do so in ways that don’t “seek out the media limelight”, such as lowering flags and making charitable donations. She also suggests those with a Royal Warrant might share how they served Queen Elizabeth during her tenure, and that these anecdotes would be “the most interesting, and authentic, stories” to come out of the corporate world at the time.
“Some brands will have the cultural nous and good timing to create tactical communication,” she added. “The Guardian’s Marmite tribute to ‘Margaret’ upon the death of Baroness Thatcher was genius. Although, such a populist approach, however clever and nuanced, might be less appropriate for a Queen with a very hard Paddington Bear stare.”
The Clearing’s managing director and founder, Richard Buchanan, believes iconic visual tributes will surface organically, and brands should stay away from emulating them. For instance, the Worker Bee and the painted Eiffel Tower that came to represent the Manchester and Paris attacks the world over were created by artists who judged the mood, tone and managed to “cut through the noise” with design.
“Imagine if either of these illustrations we’re branded by Coke,” he said. “People would hate Coke almost as much as ISIS.”
Ingham, on the other hand, has prepared himself for the good, the bad and the misjudged marketing efforts when the inevitable happens.
“Will every brand get it right?” has asked. “No. The wise ones will pull back, and when confronted with a 50-50 call, decide to be conservative, and err on the side of caution. Some will deliberately seek controversy, but I wouldn’t imagine too many. More will make the wrong decision. There’s going to be the odd corporate apology, and some hastily deleted tweets.
“But if I were to offer brands just one piece of advice it’d be this – nobody wants to be chasing money at such times. So, if in doubt, just decide ‘no’.
"There’s a time for bold marketing – this won’t be it.”