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Momentum for stalled, stuck, and stale industries.

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By Eric Layer

I still remember it. Todd Nickerson in the third grade. When I told him my dad worked at a cemetery (quite the novelty on the playground), Todd told me he thought cemeteries were gross. Todd wanted to be cremated because he didn’t want worms crawling all over him.

This was decades ago, and Todd and I have grown up. We’re old enough to start dreading making funeral arrangements for our parents. But unlike our parents (or our grandparents), our view of funeral planning and death care hasn’t been shaped by reverent social gatherings and deeply-held cultural traditions. It’s been shaped by Goosebumps books, Stephen King films, and Six Feet Under. And that will impact the choices we make.

Industries, just like companies, have brands. And just like a company’s brand, they can be an asset or a liability. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, Silicon Valley’s brand was so powerful that any startup tech company commanded the market for capital investment and talent. At the opposite end of the spectrum, even the most ethical used car salesman starts somewhere to the left of zero in terms of credibility.

I’ve always understood the heart behind the brand of funeral care. I remember hearing my father down the hall talking friends or relatives through the process of handling arrangements for their loved ones. I remember him waking in the middle of the night to respond to a call for a removal, putting on his suit and tie, and driving across town to take care of someone who had just said goodbye to his wife of sixty years. It saddened me, even as a child, that my family’s hard work and care were degraded by misinformed stereotypes.

Still, brands must evolve. The awe with which we viewed Silicon Valley for decades has turned to disillusionment. And while I still hold tremendous respect for the service and care of funeral professionals, I can’t help but cringe at the way the industry brand has been stewarded. The gold lamps, flowery wallpaper, and calligraphy logos that dominate the business were antiquated in my father’s day. In mine, they’re downright irrelevant. How can we expect the generation of Uber, Instagram, and Amazon Prime to walk into such a place and spend tens of thousands of dollars on a ceremony they were never taught to value?

If your buildings, price lists, and product offerings look anything like they did twenty years ago, I can empathize: they’ve been lean years, and reinvestment eats up already thin margins. But it’s a nasty cycle. Do you remember Sears? Radio Shack? Kodak? Brands that don’t evolve don’t tend to stick around.

Tech companies that left California for Austin stayed cool. As your industry cycles out, you can go down with the ship, or you can build a new one. I know more than a couple mortuaries who have torn the pews out of their chapels. And that helps. But interior design isn’t the only thing keeping customers at bay.

Here’s the (ironically) good news: Death is inevitable. And people today are more confused than ever about how to face it. There’s a new generation unhitched from religious, cultural, and geographic traditions, and whatever your feelings on that, they’ve smashed the compass when it comes to dealing with life events. They’re lost, and they’re looking for leadership. Millennials hire therapists at record rates. The same public that hates funeral homes and distrusts morticians is also desperate for guidance in how to navigate grief.

I know of nobody better than you to help them. But you can’t do it the same way you always have.


Eric Layer

Eric is the oldest millennial you’ll ever meet.

How disrupted are you?

For over a decade, McKee Wallwork and Company has been a leader and innovator in death care. The firm’s groundbreaking national market research is to this day the definitive consumer segmentation study on funeral care. On the creative front, MW+C was behind breakthrough work including the inception of Passare, “Scatter Day,” YODO, and the documentary The Empty Chair. MW+C has served as the agency of record for leading funeral homes, cemeteries, and death care brands from coast to coast. In addition, the firm’s robust research arm is responsible for developing the Death Care Disruption Index in partnership with Selected Independent Funeral Homes, and the Death Care Genogram in partnership with Passare. This fall, MW+C  will release its first book on the future of funeral service, The Right Way of Death, authored by partner Eric Layer.

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