Feature

‘Death tech’ brand Farewill on finding its place amid a crisis

“Tech led” will-writing and cremation service Farewill has seen a huge surge in bookings as coronavirus deaths and social distancing rules forcing people to drop traditional funerals for no-frills send-offs. But how does a brand that tackles the morbid and maudlin market itself in a time of crisis?

Along with being one of the only certainties in life, death is also one of the single biggest financial events most individuals will face, with the average cost of a traditional burial coming in at £4,500.

Now, in the middle of the deadliest pandemic in modern human history, ‘death’ has become one of the most common words on newspaper front pages and TV broadcasts as coronavirus mortality rates stack up. More than 250,000 people have now died of (or from issues directly related to) the virus globally.

For the friends and families of loved ones lost to Covid-19 (or indeed other illness) in these strange times, social distancing has ruled out the option of a traditional send-off. Flowers, glossy black hearses and hymns have been ditched for low-cost options, like direct cremations, that forgo any ceremony in disposing of the deceased as quickly as possible. Celebrations of life are being planned post-haste, or held on platforms such as Zoom.

This growing demand for simplified services is leading to a boom for design and experience focused “technology-led death brand” Farewill, which offers easy-to-use online will-writing and cremation services at a fraction of the price they traditionally cost.

However, as its top marketer Jem Elliot explains, the pure digital startup is also convinced that, post-Covid-19, it will continue to see growth as people seek out ways to make their funeral planning easier and more personalised.

“Weddings are a good example – people are organising weddings in different ways while still retaining some rituals and traditions, but increasingly they’re setting their own agenda and rewriting what their big day looks like,” explains Elliot.

“Well, the same is true with making a will. Often you’re sitting in a lawyers office, it’s very formal and you’re probably not connected to the emotional intensity of that act. Whereas if you’re doing it in a space that feels much warmer, where the tone is friendly and where the identity is making you feel comfortable, then the output is really different. We see some really personal, moving messages in a lot of our wills.”

Elliot points to this as evidence that there is a paradigm shift in the way that people want to die and say goodbye to their loved ones. “We want to make death easier and that’s what shapes our product development, our marketing, our collateral and our brand,” she adds.

However, in an industry dominated by traditional players, Covid-19 has seen the nascent player thrown in at the deep end, walking a tight rope between promoting the value of its services in these tragic times and coming off as a literal coffin chaser.

Death, warmed up

There’s no question that technology has infiltrated almost every aspect of our lives, from finance to food delivery. Until now, the death industry has remained largely untouched by the fourth industrial revolution, with most people turning to family-run, high street undertakers, and bigger insurers, solicitors or organisations such as the Co-op for end of life services.

However Farewill, which was founded in 2015 by designer Dan Garrett, is fast becoming one of the UK’s largest will writer and death specialists thanks to a more pocket-friendly, direct-to-consumer (DTC) offering. Powered by an app, the company charges £90 for a will and £980 for a direct cremation – a fraction of the typical cost.

It was while studying at the Royal College of Art in Tokyo and working part-time at a Japanese residential home that Garrett was confronted with the ineffectiveness of death care. When he returned to the UK, he quickly set about finding a way to reinvent outdated processes through tech. To date, Farewill has raised £7.5m in VC funding and is on target to capture 10% of the UK market by the end of 2020.

As the conavirus outbreak continues its spread, the London-based firm has seen will writing services soar and demand for direct funerals increase by 300%.

To appeal to some 30 million people in the UK without a will, Farewill recently enlisted Anna Charity, the illustrator, creative director and visual mastermind behind revolutionary mindfulness app Headspace, to design its brand. The antithesis to the solicitors and law firms the brand is up against, the yellow-hued visual identity was created to be warm, bright and memorable, and also features a host of illustrated characters including brand mascot ’Blob’.

More recently, the business added ex-Babylon marketer Elliot to its 65-strong team as its first head of brand and communications. A month into the job, she’s been faced with the ultimate challenge of helping the business weather the coronavirus storm.

One of her first actions was to offer free will writing services to NHS staff, after the demand for this service from health workers jumped 12-fold in the first few weeks of the crisis. “It just felt like the right thing to do,” she explains.

“We took a delicate approach because we didn’t want to make people panic or make them nervous. But at the same time, we felt like we could do something good by letting NHS staff do this online, for free, in 15 minutes. We’ve had a great response and it’s been adopted by a lot of NHS trusts.”

Branding in a time of tragedy

Though Farewill collaborates with agencies and artists on a project basis, the bulk of its creative work is done in-house – something Elliot has no plans to change. In the past it has invested in TV to build awareness, but for now the majority of its budgets and resource are focused on digital.

Elliot details its current media plan, which is run by a dedicated in-house head of acquisition alongside agency The Specialist Works: “We’re running search ads, insert ads, we’re looking at our CRM and making sure that’s well-framed too.

“We always have to be sensitive about what we’re doing – extra sensitive at the moment,” adds Elliot, detailing how – alongside DTC bedfellows like Bloom & Wild – the brand is part of the ‘Thoughful Marketing Movement’ that lets customers opt-out of communications they may find distressing or triggering.

Though raising brand awareness is Elliot’s key charge, she says that the brand isn’t investing in newspaper or magazine advertising at the moment because it wants to be thoughtful about placement.

“We don’t want to be talking about making wills next to [articles about] death tolls, so we’re forgoing that completely. We’re also reviewing all of our standard communications so they feel appropriately encouraging and show people that we can help. That’s always been our main aim and it’s still the case in light of coronavirus – we’re just motivated by making a terrible experience better.”

Post-pandemic, Elliot believes Farewill will continue to draw interest from consumers looking to say farewell in different ways.

Coronavirus, she argues, is only accelerating a broader behavioural change. The marketer points to the advent of virtual or remote funerals, which are prompting people to join services they previously wouldn’t have because of work or other commitments.

“Technology is making them more accessible,” she explains. “I was speaking to a customer recently whose Rabbi had died and her whole community attended the ceremony. She said it was lovely and probably wouldn’t have happened in a traditional situation because people would have been busy elsewhere.”

Another trend the DTC group has spotted is an increased personalisation and creativity around orders of service, which are becoming “a real physical memorandum” for some.

“This crisis is forcing people to think more deeply about what would be right for them,” says Elliot. “And we can help them make it happen.”

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