What Dying Brands Should Learn From the Business of Death

By Eric Layer

When brands or industries are in turmoil, it’s easy to hunker down and take a defensive stance. But too often, that instinct is exactly what leads to a company’s demise. The Blockbusters and Radio Shacks of the world put their heads down to defend old turf when they should have been aggressively striking out after new opportunities. While it’s too late for those brands, there are others who still have time to avoid the same fate.

An industry not known for its branding gives us a unique example. For the past two decades, the death care field has been marked by a steady decline in revenue as traditional funerals and burials are replaced by direct cremations and a generation with a different outlook on death. The cultural changes driving this shift are complicated, but the implications are straightforward: the funeral business is in trouble.

That’s not to say the industry doesn’t have a lot to offer. Even when a category is disrupted, people’s basic needs remain constant. Customers didn’t quit going to Blockbuster because they needed less entertainment, they just needed a better way to get it. Even if funerals are no longer the cultural events they once were, the process of saying goodbye, healthily mourning a loss, and celebrating the life of a loved one are all valuable offerings.

But that’s a tough sell in a culture that doesn’t want to think about death. Funeral service grew complacent in the fat years when expensive funerals were a societal expectation. When people stop coming to you, it can be scary to set out after them.

Unfortunately, many funeral homes have yielded to that fear, responding to new challenges by taking the easy path. Instead of thoughtfully considering changing expectations and how to meet them, they’re caving to what they think people want. I saw an outdoor board recently with nothing but a mortuary’s logo and two costs: several thousand dollars for a traditional service juxtaposed against several hundred for a direct cremation. The call to action wasn’t tough to see: “You should pick the cheapest option, and we’ll give it to you.”

That’s hardly the kind of thinking that’s going to restore relevance for a brand—or an industry. A confident brand leaves its mark on public perception. A desperate brand lets public perception define it. The difference isn’t hard to spot, and customers take notice. This bargain mortuary may have thought it was responding to demand, but shifting demands call for a better way, not a cheaper version of the old approach. By competing on price, this business sacrificed its last shred of credibility: even if I don’t want an expensive traditional funeral for my mom, I don’t want to entrust her remains to a used car salesman.

By contrast, industry leaders like French Funerals and Cremations (a client of our firm) have wisely and boldly engaged the challenge head-on. They audaciously chose to buck industry wisdom by stepping into a terrifyingly sensitive space and starting the conversation nobody wants to have. By revitalizing and owning the few times people still visit cemeteries (like Christmas and Memorial Day) they’ve found new ways to engage their audience. They’ve dared their community to talk about death with outdoor messages like “YODO” and “Carpe di end,” and web ads encouraging people to engage funerals in new ways, like a motorcycle hearse for a Harley aficionado, or a pine casket for a fan of spaghetti westerns.

The stakes of that kind of engagement are high. Some people have taken offense, and some who expect the old-fashioned experience want to turn back the clock. It’s easier for bold brands to misstep, and it can be lonely at the front of the pack.

But the payoff is immense. Since the launch of the campaign, French has routinely been featured in local and national news for starting conversations around death. Their social media platforms have shown engagement growth in the hundreds of percent—unheard of for a zero-interest category. And while industry trends show declining sales nationwide, French has sustained strong growth—not just by growing market share, but by growing the market, convincing a new generation that death is worth thinking about after all.

Against that kind of leadership, campaigns that compete on price seem downright silly. Like a lemming standing next to a lion, the followers’ frailty is exposed for its weakness next to the leader’s strength. Unfortunately, most markets and most industries have more examples of fear than courage. Even some of the world’s most valuable brands too often give in to the temptation to advertise the attributes they think consumers want, instead of elevating the conversation to the ideas for which they exist.

Or maybe it’s not so unfortunate. With branding chutzpah in short supply, there’s plenty of opportunity for fearless brands to stand apart and redefine their markets. That is, after all, how the great ones got there in the first place.

Originally published on Talent Zoo

Eric Layer

Partner and author, Eric specializes in building things faster and better than mere mortals. Call Eric when you have an impossible mountain to climb. He’ll get you to the top.

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