Like it or not, tragic events have become opportunities for brands to strengthen the connection with their audiences on social media. But if not done well, it can alienate an audience and cause a PR backlash. Chevy’s recent tribute to Prince is a lesson to any brand on how to do it well.

Getting It Right

Social media hasn’t only changed the way that people communicate and share news; it’s given brands an immediate way to reach out to their followers and attract new ones.

Some brands, such as Dove soap, Oreos, and Denny’s are generally “crushing it,” delivering valuable content that entertains, informs and creates a stronger connection with their audience. Adweek routinely showcases ten brands that are getting in right on social media.

Other brands don’t draw much notice until they post something that’s largely perceived as tasteless or opportunistic. This has been seen several times in recent months, relative to the deaths of beloved musical icons. Shoe brand Crocs received so much flack for their Twitter tribute to David Bowie (which prominently displayed one of their shoes) that they deleted the tweet within 20 minutes. General Mills received a similar backlash relative to Prince.

Chevrolet, on the other hand, got it remarkably right. Their April 22 Facebook post, coming a day after the announcement of Prince’s untimely death, has to be one of the classiest, most understated social media brand tributes ever.

The bottom half of the rectangular post is taken up by a rear view of a cherry-red 1963 Corvette Stingray against a pitch-black background. Above the car are two lines in white type: “Baby, that was much too fast” (an altered reference to a line from his song “Little Red Corvette”) and “1958 – 2016.”

Response to the post was abundant and positive (15,000+ shares, 9,200+ likes, and who-knows-how-many comments):

  • “Such a classy tribute to my favorite entertainer. This is a keepsake.”
  • “Who knew Chevrolet could make me cry at work?”
  • “Six words and a ‘63 split window just took my breath away. Best tribute I’ve seen …”
  • “Thank you, GM, for coming up with something ‘fast’ to pay tribute.”
  • “That’s the first time I’ve actually cried since I heard the news … beautifully done.”
  • “A massive well done Chevrolet for a stunningly beautiful tribute … pure and utter class, just like Prince was …”

They go on and on. The flood of goodwill was so overwhelming that Chevy ran a full-page version in print editions of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The New York Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. Seeing it in print, readers may not at first have even realized that it came from Chevy.

There are several lessons that any brand can learn from Chevy’s tribute.

Be Real

When a beloved figure passes, the fans or public feel a genuine loss—loss not only of the person, but of a part of their own lives.

At such a time, they are likely to view social media messages from brands with suspicion and cynicism: “How is Company X trying to capitalize on this?”

Brands don’t grieve; people do. So you must communicate not as a brand, but as a person. It may be as simple as the brand sharing or retweeting a personal post from one of its executives.

Chevrolet’s post feels as real as if it had been created by a true Prince fan. Who else would have chosen that particular lyric and altered it to such poignant effect? It’s almost like a secret message to the people who loved him most.

Keep the Brand out of It

While it’s become common for brands to leverage the news to create clickable social media, using a tragic event to draw attention to your brand is about as welcome as a burial insurance salesman passing out business cards at a funeral.

Grieving fans will censure perceived opportunism, as they did with General Mills. The company, located in Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis, goofed badly with a tweet that showed a “Rest in peace” message on a purple background with a Cheerio replacing the dot over the “i.” One reply in particular summed up how this kind of message is regarded: “Hey guys, Prince died. BUT PLEASE DON’T FORGET ABOUT CHEERIOS!”

Chevy’s tribute on the other hand contained no branding, no watermark, no current product offerings. (The vehicle in the ad is 52 years old.) It was entirely about the loss of Prince.

It’s Okay to Say Nothing

If you don’t relate to the loss and can’t genuinely grieve with the fans, it’s better to just remain silent than to risk saying something offensive.

If your product is not especially identified with the deceased or your audience is not the deceased’s audience, the most respectful thing you could do is to acknowledge the passing by foregoing any social media postings for a day.

No one sits around looking to brands to commemorate tragic events. And no one will accuse a brand of overlooking a death by halting all social media for a period. But by carrying on with the usual promotions, a brand may be perceived as insensitive or simply out of touch with current events.

It Comes down to Sensitivity

Some have criticized Chevrolet, insisting that the brand had no real connection with Prince and thus they’d have been wiser to remain silent. However, they were in the unique (even coincidental) position of being connected due to a well-known cultural reference to a “little red Corvette.”

It’s the kind of connection to a brand that does not come along very often.

Chevrolet was wise to have seized it and displayed great sensitivity in how they handled it.

That is the underlying lesson: If you as a brand are going to pay your respects, pay it to the deceased, not to your brand. Do it with sensitivity to the family and the public.

Do it for them, not for you.

Sahaj Kothari
Founder of
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