How Cheerios stumbled into a social media firestorm

As millions mourned the death of Prince, the cereal’s Twitter team inserted the brand into the grieving with a tweet that quickly elicited scorn. Here’s what to keep in mind in such situations.

Social media can be tricky.

The recent death of iconic musician Prince unsurprisingly generated a tidal wave of social media buzz. Among the many heartfelt messages were tributes from big music brands such as Spotify and Pandora, and even unrelated brands like Chevrolet.

One Twitter post, however, stood out from the rest.

This seemingly harmless tweet by Cheerios went viral—the bad kind of viral. Many people shamed the brand and its parent company, General Mills, for taking advantage of Prince’s death to sell their product. The weird part, though, is that other companies posted similar tweets. Chevrolet even included an image of a Chevy in its tribute image but didn’t receive nearly the same negative response.

Where did the Cheerios social media team go wrong? What should it have done instead?

Here’s some advice for sharing branded content during times of mourning:

Be genuine.

Genuine respect for your audience is arguably the most important part of branded content. One reason branded content exists is that people grew tired of traditional marketing treating them like nothing more than wallets.

Cheerios’ tweet may have had genuine intentions, but it’s easy to see how people might think Cheerios was trying to pull a semi-subliminal marketing trick. Your content should never make your audience feel that you’re taking advantage of them.

Cheerios’ team members set themselves up for failure by inserting their product into a sensitive topic and not acknowledging it in any way. Instead, they simply included the hashtag “#prince”. A topic such as death deserves a sensitive approach, and Cheerios dropped the ball.

Be relevant.

Wait, didn’t Chevrolet try to sell me a car in their tribute? Why did they get away with it? Honestly, a large part of that may have been pure luck; maybe Cheerios just got people’s attention first. Or maybe it’s because Chevrolet and other brands kept their content relevant to their niche.

Chevrolet’s tribute used a car, front and center. Spotify included the name of a Prince song. NASA showed a beautiful image of a nebula. Meanwhile, Cheerios sneaks in a single piece of cereal over a generic (albeit traditional) message. It was a halfway measure that seemed to trade risk for wide appeal.

Even when addressing a celebrity death, branded content shouldn’t appeal to everyone; it should appeal to your audience. If they wants to see pictures of cars, find a way to relate cars to that celebrity. If you can’t do that, stick with a simple “RIP” displayed in your brand typography.

Be careful.

When in doubt, stay quiet. If your brand has nothing to do with a recently deceased celebrity, your fans probably won’t fault you for not addressing his or her passing. However, everyone will notice if you advertise your product when most people are paying their respects.

This brings up a related topic-the dangers of automated posts. Many brand managers have learned this lesson the hard way. You never know what tomorrow will bring. There could be an unexpected opportunity for fun branded content, but there’s always the unfortunate opportunity for disaster.

If you can afford it, always have a person post your content manually and in real time. That way, if a sensitive topic arises, the worst thing that can happen is that nothing gets posted.

When handling celebrity deaths, always err on the side of sensitivity. If you know your audience well enough, though, you should be able to judge what will be offensive and what will be appreciated.

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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