Building a Brand that people can love or hate

Date Published: 
October, 2004
Original Author: 
Glenn Gould
MKJ Marketing, Largo, Florida
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, October 2004

Does your funeral home have fans? Does your cemetery have boosters?
To build a brand with a loyal following, you must figure out whom you want to serve, what those people want and how you will meet their needs.

Think about a product you truly love. It doesn't matter what the product is, it just has to be a brand to which you are completely committed. When a product meets your needs and expectations perfectly, even trying out a competing product serves to strengthen your loyalty to the one you love.

There are "products people love" in all sorts of categories: clothing, golf clubs, automobiles, churches, foods, sports teams, restaurants…... the list goes on and on. It even includes funeral homes and cemeteries.

What is it about a product that creates absolute customer commitment? The company that creates the product understands its consumers and has reached them with its message. Of course, at the same time the company has found its customers, it has alienated others. Some people love their
product. Another group of people is just as certain the product is not for them—they may even resent the people who choose it.

Choose Your Customer
Some products and services can survive without an identity, but cemeteries, funeral homes and cremation services are more successful when consumers have a good understanding and appreciation of what the business stands for.

When developing a successful brand strategy, identifying the consumer being targeted is critical, because the emotion that consumer develops for the brand, the passion the customer feels for the product, is the foundation of brand loyalty.

Any product or brand that elicits customer passion is, by definition, not for everyone, and this can be difficult to accept. Funeral home and cemetery owners, like all business people, want to serve everyone, and they want everyone to buy their best product.

There's nothing unusual about wanting that; but in a world where consumers have a broad spectrum of options and every consumer is demanding, capturing 100 percent of the market is not a realistic goal. In fact, attempting to be everything to everybody will simply result in a product lacking identity and therefore attracting no customer loyalty.

But it is realistic to capture all or most of the business from those prospects for whom your product was created.

Most communities have a funeral home that is clearly seen as the quality leader. In the typical case, this firm will have the highest prices and the largest volume. The owners of other funeral homes in the community try to understand what makes the leader so successful, why people are willing to pay more to use that firm versus theirs.

They study the suits the funeral directors wear; they copy the firm's advertising. If the leader has a holiday grief seminar, several other funeral homes in town will do the same. If the leader builds a crematory, others will do so.

In simple terms, they try to compete by following or complimenting the leader. Funeral businesses have been doing this forever with no success. In fact, this strategy will never be successful.

Consumers willing to pay more to use the quality leader have good reasons for preferring that firm. Why would they shift their patronage to a funeral home that is trying to be “just as good?” When competing with the leader, there is only one proven strategy: contrast—not compliment.

Don't Follow the Leader
—Go Your Own Way
Regardless of the product or service, any time there has been a successful challenger to an industry leader it has been through a strategy of contrast, of being diametrically opposite the leader in some clear and discernable way.

Pepsi used its "taste challenge" commercials to convince consumers that their product had a better taste, but that strategy did not win market share. What worked was positioning their product as preferred by young people, with Coke perceived as their parents' (and grandparents') drink.

Many airlines have tried to compete on the basis of being a better version of United, Delta or American Airlines; all of them have failed. Southwest Airlines built its success by positioning themselves as completely different. Instead of suits, their people wear Dockers and golf shirts. Instead of exuding an air of formal professionalism, their crews tell jokes, even when doing the safety presentations.

Most chicken in grocery stores is priced as a commodity. Tyson supports its higher price strategy by selling chicken based on the company owner's persona and product quality.

Apple successfully competes in a marketplace dominated by the far larger IBM platform computers by capturing the graphic arts segment of the market and expanding its base from there.

The entire auto industry is based on niche marketing—every single vehicle and each brand name is designed to differentiate itself in some way from every other vehicle. The apparel industry is a complex myriad of competing brand names. Within each major category are brands attempting to appeal to a specific demographic group.

The first step in implementing a segmentation strategy is to identify the characteristics of the targeted group. Whom do we want to serve and what is important to them; not in terms of funeral service but in terms of their self-esteem?

All funeral homes conduct funerals; talking about funerals will not differentiate one funeral home from another. In some situations, facilities, personalization, cremation services, preneed or other special services can differentiate one firm from another, but in many communities even these factors are too similar among the competitors.

There are times when the only real difference between competing funeral homes is their promotional message. Is your advertising reaching someone, or are you just buying time or space?

Targeting Seniors
Seniors look for surrogate families to replace the family they have lost over time. Many funeral directors tell stories of seniors calling the funeral home to advise them that they have not had as many listings in the obituaries as some of the other firms in town, and to offer advice on how to market their services.

These people obviously identity with that funeral home at a high level. They have attended funerals there, have come to know the staff and have a sense of identification with the firm.

The need for a sense of belonging is a basic human need. According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the only ones more basic are sustenance (food, water, air) and security or safety. Though the desire for "self-actualization" is often referred to in analyses of why people do what they do. that need is much higher on Maslow's hierarchy and does not become a factor unless the person has already satisfied the need for belonging.

For many funeral homes, giving seniors a sense of identification with their firm is their primary challenge. When staff members build a local identity with seniors, they are facilitating a sense of "belonging" with the funeral home. The second most common reason volunteered for preferring a particular funeral home is knowing someone on the staff.

Targeting Affluent Baby Boomers
Funeral homes have the greatest difficulty connecting with the affluent and well-educated consumer. Affluent consumers are simply not interested in what funeral homes have to offer. To change this indifference, you must effectively communicate with them, and that starts with understanding what's important to them.

Foremost. they want people to know they are successful. Second, they want to receive special treatment. Meeting with an unprepared, unimpressive arranger will not encourage them to spend more. On the other hand, meeting with one of the owners of the firm, who is well versed and knowledgeable about cremation options and services, can convert this family from choosing minimal services to personalized memorials and higher quality merchandise.

Often the affluent consumer takes the form of a baby boomer representing his or her parents. If the key in brand development is creating an image consumers can identify with, or better put, letting the customer "own" the brand, what can we do to let the baby boomer "own" your brand? We'd begin by building the brand around what we know about baby boomers:

1. Baby boomers respond very well to packaging, not just packages of services and products, but actual packaging. They respond to the way the product is presented. Notice how restaurant menus have evolved from being simply informative to being graphic and artistic.  Check into even a mid-priced hotel and you are given a key packaged with a portfolio containing hotel information. Buy a new car and the documentation comes in a leather portfolio. Baby boomers love packaging.

Examine how your firm presents cremation choices. Do you use an arrangement presentation or do you expect your arranger to verbally describe all of the options available with cremation? Just having a presentation tool will greatly influence the final sale.

2. Baby boomers watch television. More than any other identifying characteristic, baby boomers are addicted to television for entertainment and information, just as the members of the WWII generation are avid newspaper readers, people from the Depression era listened to the radio and today's younger generations identify with the computer and the Internet.

Baby boomers do not read the newspaper, and certainly not the obituary page. If 80 percent of your advertising budget is going to newspapers and direct mail, it's time to rethink your advertising.

3. Baby boomers reject anything valued by their parents. Their parents want to do "what is right" and "the same thing everyone else does." Baby boomers want to do what is right for them, and above all, they don't want what everyone else does.

4. Baby boomers reject aging and identify with new. Though many baby boomers love old architecture, they want it updated and fresh. A funeral home in an old building can capture baby boomers, but not with old furnishings, in small, dimly lit rooms. Do away with the drapes, open the windows and polish the hardwood floors.

5. Baby boomers are price- and value-conscious. They are the sandwich generation, caught between the expense of educating their children and caring for their parents. They are cash-strapped, they shop for discounts and they only spend money when they derive benefits they value. Simply giving them a "deal" on a better quality casket, an extra night of visitation or a newer hearse won't build brand loyalty.

Wal-Mart television advertisements communicate effectively with baby boomer women by showing prices physically dropping on their television advertisements. In contrast to nearly every other form of price advertising, the Wal-Mart ads don't specify on what products the customer will save money. The objective of their ads is to build an image of offering lower prices, in general.

What image does your funeral home communicate to baby boomers? Do you tell them your firm is affordable, is responsive to their wishes and offers services they want?


No one will ever predict that the "best days" in death care are ahead of us. They are definitely behind us and will never return in the same form as in the past. As a result, not every funeral home and certainly not every cemetery will survive the coming shake-out. Instead, the best marketed firms, those that understand their market and successfully sell into it, will do well as others disappear.

If you don't have a clear picture of your challenges, opportunities and goals, you may want to work late tonight getting it into focus.