Touching or Tacky: When Brands Should & Shouldn’t Comment on Current Events

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Prince’s death came as a big shock to music lovers around the world. News that the 57 year old musician had passed away caused instant headlines and a massive outpouring of grief on social media. In the midst of it all, Cheerios, which is based out of Minnesota, Prince’s home state, Tweeted an image that featured a purple background and the words “Rest in Peace” with a Cheerio in the place of the dot over the i.

The backlash was immediate and fierce. General Mills, Cheerios’ parent company, pulled the Tweet down almost immediately, and subsequently issued an apology. Yet other brands, including Google, 3M and Pixar, released messaging mourning Prince’s passing without evoking a similar negative response.

What’s the difference? It’s hard to say. Cheerios did use a product image in their post, but 3M and Pixar’s tributes included their logos altered in homage to Prince. 3M changed their logo to Prince’s trademark purple, while Pixar replaced the I in their name with the symbol Prince used during the period when he was identified as ‘the artist formally known as Prince’.

Marketing is both an art and a science, and Cheerios was absolutely in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t position. Ignoring the passing of a hometown icon wasn’t going to do, yet the post they made garnered a hostile reaction. Chevrolet also used a product shot in their memorial Tweet, but it was of the little red Corvette Prince memorably sang about. The takeaway may be that one should avoid using product shots in memorial posts unless there is an inarguably well-known and positive association between the product and the person. Had Prince had a well-loved song about Cheerios, surely the Tweet in question would have garnered hearts instead of hatred.

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