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The brands leading the grief-sensitive marketing movement

Festive marketing has dominated for years - but can brands do more to be grief-sensitive?

Ahead of World Mental Health Day, brands will join the global pledge to support all of those living with mental ill-health. But in a year when bereavements are particularly high, are we missing the final hurdle – grief sensitive marketing?

No matter what your product or how big your audience, you’re likely to have a campaign calendar that you work to. And while some of us find ourselves working on some niche, industry-specific campaigns, other events are seen as practically universal. Black Friday and the build-up to the festive period are strong focuses for B2C brands, and gifting opportunities – such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Valentine’s – are earmarked for their marketing value every year.

As these events come and go, year after year, they’ve taken on lives of their own, fuelling excitement, serving as a way to connect with loved ones and treat them to gifts and experiences. There’s a sense that the majority of the population has cause to celebrate from the 1st of December onwards, or that everyone who walks into the local supermarket will be grateful for a reminder that Mother’s Day is coming up. But there are those who would rather forget.

Festive marketing has dominated for years - but can brands do more to be grief-sensitive?

Anniversaries and holidays take on a whole new meaning for bereaved people. There’s an uphill struggle of grieving while everyone else is celebrating, and it’s only made steeper because the marketing around these events is relentless.

“I think there’s still so much work to be done with companies around Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, for example, as well as lots of other anniversaries”, said Chelsie James, a grief blogger, speaking at YMS:Online earlier this year. “The marketing campaigns need to be seriously relooked at, and they need to be a lot more sensitive to people for whom those days are particularly hard”.


Gen Z will find it particularly difficult to avoid triggering marketing around anniversaries and holidays. As digital natives, they’ve grown up with social media embedded in their lives – from email newsletters to retargeted ads, they’ll find it harder than most to switch off from their digital worlds for a while.

Gen Z has also inherited a grieving process that is built around taboo and silence. “As a young person without a parent, I felt marginalized”, said Chelsie. “I didn’t know anyone that I was connected with that I could relate to”.

Gen Z can't switch off from social media as easily as other generations

COVID-19 has pushed the grieving process into the collective consciousness, forcing brands to adapt their messaging. After all, everything from the student experience to the festive period has changed radically, and for this year, the marketing around these key events will have to look different. None of us will be celebrating in the same way, and a growing number of us won’t want to mark certain events at all this year.

But there’s an argument to be made for long-term changes to how these events are marketed in the future. Long before COVID-19, there were grieving individuals for whom Mother’s Day and Valentine’s were filled with dread.

The festive period, valentine's and mothers day: all made harder for those who are grieving

Some brands are already leading the way in trying to alleviate this. In May 2019, flower delivery service Bloom & Wild recognized that Mother’s Day would be difficult for some of its newsletter subscribers – so it sent an opt-out email to all customers, giving them the option to pause communications in the build-up to Mother’s Day.

For many, the opt-out email was a welcome opportunity. Recipients took to Twitter to praise Bloom & Wild, and it was even brought up in Parliament. Now, Bloom & Wild is spearheading a Thoughtful Marketing Movement, encouraging other brands to give customers the option to opt out ahead of anniversaries.

 So far, Paperchase, Treatwell and Wagamama are among the diverse brands that have signed up. Chelsie recalled how greetings card company Thortful sent her an opt-out email ahead of Father’s Day. “I gave them a shoutout on Twitter about it. I think organizations need to be recognized and that will then provoke other organizations to look at themselves and their customers and see if they can make similar changes.”

It’s been a year since Bloom & Wild’s first opt-out email, but the sensitivity behind it has only grown more and more relevant to Gen Z as they grapple with COVID-19. Brands need to do the work to give their consumers options – as for many, switching off from all digital media for weeks at a time is not feasible. Part of moving forward into a more thoughtful future for marketing will be to recognize that these anniversaries aren’t universally celebrated – so it doesn’t make sense to talk about them as though they are.

Before you put together your next youth marketing campaign, make sure you know Gen Z inside out. Download the Youth Trends Report 2020 .

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