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Should Death Ever Be a Gimmick?

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Mr. Peanut vs. Google’s 'Loretta': how two iconic brands leveraged the concept of grief, with very different results

When you talk about death, you’re touching the literal endpoint of everyone’s life journey and the core of the human experience. That’s a pretty profound place, one where most companies tread very carefully, if they dare at all. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen two major corporations leverage the idea of grief as part of their brand — with very different results. 

From Monocle to Pacifier, the Strange Death and Life of a 100-year Mascot

Mr. Peanut, the corporate mascot of Planters Peanuts, has been with us for a while, and except for that brief flirtation with a grey flannel suitcoat in 2010, his image has stayed remarkably stable. This kind of consistency used to be the ideal end goal of brand strategy: “Purchasing is more an emotional decision than a practical one. Part of engaging the right emotions with your consumers is making them feel like they know your brand and that your brand can be trusted. Brand consistency is part of building trust.” (venveo.com

But then social media arrived, and the nature of brands began to blur. Today’s corporate mascot isn’t just a cartoon these days. They have backstories, merchandise, and social media accounts all their own. Says critic Ian Bogost: “Brands are not real human friends, exactly, but neither are they faceless corporations anymore.”  

But consumers should take care in how far they let that anthropomorphizing go, or they, like comedian Luke Taylor, find themselves suspended from Twitter for threatening Mr. Peanut. “Brands already act like real people on Twitter,” Taylor says, “so I decided to give a brand the same treatment almost everyone else receives on that platform.”  

It’s hard not to wonder if Taylor got someone over at Planters thinking. Someone who also noticed an iconic Star Wars character get a remake from venerable to adorable on Twitter.  

It wouldn’t be the first time Mr. Peanut got an update to connect with a new generation: that grey flannel costume change in 2010 was part of a wave of “new retro” branding that swept corporations with aging icons. “Nostalgia is not what it used to be. The goal is to be perceived not as old-fashioned, fusty and out of date, but old-school… and worthy of respect.” (Stuart Elliot, New York Times) 

But this was the first time marketers publicly killed one of today’s icon – the kind that feel so alive people have extensive digital relationships with them, one they’d gone to great efforts to give a literal voice (Robert Downey, Jr’s!).  

It’s also the first time they then planned a branded funeral on Super Bowl Sunday with a full social media campaign and a live rebirth sparked by Mr. Kool-Aid’s tears.  

That’s… a lot. 

"Things got weird when I saw his obituary”  
(James Dator, sbnation)

Loretta is Remembered, and Google Gains an Aura of Empathy 

Amidst this hullaballoo, Google quietly dropped one of the most poignant ads in recent memory.  

Based on the experience of a Google employee, 'Loretta' shows an elderly man using the Google Assistant app to help remember his wife by recording his memories of her and playing them back whenever he needs it. The ad ends with the narrator headed out the door with his dog.  

It’s a powerful statement about technology’s ability to impact many of the thorny realities of aging: memory loss, grief, and loneliness. And Google conveyed that all without ever once using the words “death,” “loss,” “Alzheimers,” or “dementia.” Or a logoed mourning candle

And the Winner? 

For Google, it was a clear branding victory: 

The Mr. Peanut Super Bowl ad got a slightly different response: 

"Google went for the heartstrings – and it worked.” 
(Derek Ruckner, CNN)

 

When you compare the branding strategies behind the Loretta and Baby Nut campaigns, some old marketing truths come around again: Brand consistency and connection matters. Google’s 'Loretta' succeeded because they kept in step with their established identity while connecting with their audience in a straightforward way.  

“By leveraging strong storytelling and images that clearly came from a family album,” wrote marketing professor Derek Ruckner on CNN.com, “the ad forged a stronger connection with consumers who already know what Google does. The result was remarkable consistency with Google's brand.” 

Viewed next to the pathos of 'Loretta,' the Baby Nut campaign can seem wincingly crass. “The novelty is in watching these inanimate, two-dimensional brands open their mouths and convince us to see the humanity in them, humor and ennui and all,” says Eater.com’s Jenny Zhang. “But to be truly human is to be confronted with the knowledge of your own mortality; to live is to eventually die. That’s the thing about these brand stunts that leaves such a bad taste in the mouth.”  

For Mr. Peanut, that means deeply confused consumers who were also deeply resentful that a corporation appropriated one of the most profound of human experiences for a centenarian legume — which they then immediately resurrected with anime eyes and a too-big top hat. 

Even in a 30-Second Story, Death Has to Mean Something 

As a company whose products serve people in grief, we know it’s impossible to do that without talking about price. But there’s a difference between respectfully selling services that help people navigate the difficulties of loss, and wielding the profound reality of death as a cheap tearjerker to sell something mundane.  

Everyone dies. That means that the rest of us have plenty of real grief to suffer. That is a reality deserving of reverence. 

Google took the authentic route, and it paid off. As for Planters, right now their brand is bound for a few weeks of sleepless nights and diaper changes. Only time will tell if Baby Nut grows up to be just as profitable as his... father? Himself? Herself? Mr. Kool-Aid? We’re still not sure where Planters was going with that…