Companies faced minefield when commenting on Prince death

This was, the experts say, a beautiful ad placed in the nation’s newspapers today in the wake of the death of Prince.


The consensus is this tweet from 3M hit the mark, thanks mostly to a well-placed teardrop. Or maybe it was rain.

But this one, from General Mills, was a swing and a miss.

“As a Minnesota brand, Cheerios wanted to acknowledge the loss of a musical legend in our hometown. But we quickly decided that we didn’t want the tweet to be misinterpreted, and removed it out of respect for Prince and those mourning,” the company said in a statement.

“Cheerios was not even the most egregious,” says Nathan Eide, the director of emerging media at Bolin Marketing in Minneapolis.

It wasn’t as bad as Four Loko beer, which said in a since-deleted tweet that it was “pouring one out for Prince.”


“It’s a fine line between class and crass,” Eide said. Four Loko and Cheerios “made the brand the story.”

3M didn’t, says Kate-Madonna Hindes, owner of Girl Meets Geek, a communications firm in the Twin Cities.

“It was timely and understanding,” she said. Being a Minnesota company, it reflected what the people of the state were feeling, a credit, she says, to a graphics person “who was really on the ball.”

Hindes says there’s a narrow set of circumstances when companies should wade into the marketing scene on the death of someone. “If you know them or if you have a relationship with them,” she says.

But not if you’re trying to sell something.


Hindes and Eide agree that the use of the Cheerio tipped the message.

“I think that was probably a great internal discussion,” Hindes says about General Mills, a company that is famously protective of its brands. “Maybe a music note or a teardrop [instead of the Cheerio] or maybe just say nothing at all.”

“If they’d left out the Cheerio over the ‘i’, they would’ve gotten away with it,” Eide adds.

Above all, the marketing has to show the love.

Take this tweet from The Weather Channel:

“It’s touching in a quiet way,” says Eide. “It humanizes the organization. It says it’s not a soulless, baseless corporate entity. It says ‘we understand this thing happened and is impactful in the lives of our employees.'”

Which brings us back to Corvette.

“To get that out so quickly was absolutely incredible,” says Hindes. “It goes back to their leadership. Ads go through so many revisions. I’m constantly looking at revisions and it usually takes two or three months.”

As good as 3M’s tweet was, “Chevrolet wins,” she said when asked to choose between the two.

For companies that swung and missed yesterday, Eide sees it as short-term damage. “It’s more of a Thermite; it burns really hot and then burns out. The mob mentality hits really hard, but as soon as the news cycle ends, people move on to the next thing.”

While both acknowledge that companies’ instinct is to “jump in and be relevant” during breaking news, Hindes says there’s another way a company can respond during days like yesterday.

“Maybe just stay silent,” she said.

(h/t: Meg Martin)

  • Cede Boofflawkr

    Cheerios done right.

  • Nick Orum
  • ae_umn

    I’m looking at the Cheerios and 3M tributes, and I just don’t see how one is egregious and the other was touching.

    • One crassly incorporated the marketing of a company product within the “tribute”. That’s the difference IMHO.

      • Tim

        But 3M is marketing themselves too, and Chevrolet is marketing their product in the ad as well (plus, they might have wanted to listen to the song a bit more closely). Really, any company is marketing themselves when they do these things, so long as they’re including their name or logo, even if it’s not their primary intention. It’s not really possible to remove themselves from the story if their name is on it in some way, which is why I think the approach of staying silent might be the best advice.

        • MCHP12

          It’s more of a Minnesota thing with 3M. The first of the three Ms is “Minnesota” — they are making a localized Minnesota connection with Prince, a sentiment that continues coursing through the State on this day following news of his death.

          • Tim

            A sentiment and marketing are not mutually exclusive. It’s not either/or.

          • Plus, no doubt, Prince recorded on 3M professional audio tape. All of the Twin Cities studios used it in the ’70s, ’80s & ’90s. Also: 3M was a digital recording leader.

            There is much more of a “personal” connection between Prince and 3M than with Cheerios. In fact, Prince was more of a fan of Dunkaroos (marketed by General Mills under its Betty Crocker brand):


        • Rob

          Tough to market a car that hasn’t been made for 50 years. Chevrolet is undoubtedly promoting their brand, not a specific product.

        • @Tim: Prince wrote a song about a Corvette. He didn’t write anything (that we know of) about Cheerios.

          That’s what makes General Mills’ move more of “crass marketing” than “sentimental tribute”.

      • Jim in RF

        It’s all very subjective, but I don’t see the difference either. If the text in the post hadn’t told me one was good and the other, I would have ranked them equally.

      • chlost

        Corvette included their product, 3M included their logo. Not sure how that is so much worse than a single Cheerio dotting the letter i. All of them are marketing ploys. That’s what their marketing departments do. It’s not about the death. It’s always about the money. Always.

        • DavidG

          Prince never wrote a song titled (or even mentioning) Cheerios. That’s the difference.

          • Tim

            Well, now you’re moving the goalposts, because that wasn’t the original argument.

          • That point was made by both of the people I talked to. There was a relationship that existed between Corvette and Prince that didn’t exist between the Cheerios brand and Prince.

            I asked both whether companies — the ones that succeed at the attempt and the ones that fail — are coming from the same place: Pushing the brand.

            The answer is complicated and unscientific. Sort of. It’s about the brand, but it’s not necessarily selling a product. Corvette, for example, didn’t put a new Corvette in the ad. 3M *is* a Minnesota company, but it’s not like they put their thought on a Post It note, which I think would’ve pushed it to the tacky side.

            Curiously, one Minnesota company — Target — didn’t do anything on social or in ads. They just lit the top of their building in purple last night..

          • tboom

            “… but it’s not like they put their thought on a Post It note … “

            Yes, but they put their thought inside their corporate logo!

            I get finance, I get accounting, I get operations, I get sales, I somewhat get economics and law, but marketing will never make sense to me – never.

          • Right, and that’s clearly the reality: Every company here is trying to plant the company flag on a news story. I think Eide’s quote is significant: “t says ‘we understand this thing happened and is impactful in the lives of our employees.’”

          • tboom

            Everyone is trying to promote their “brand” (either literal brand as in Cheerios or corporate brand as in 3M). To me it’s all egregious, I’ sure that to many others they’re all wonderful tributes. I get the “perception is reality” concept, what troubles me is the distinction between “hit the mark” and “egregious”. To me this feels like marketing professionals patting some of their colleagues on the back and shaming others – but like I said earlier; I’ll never understand marketing.

          • Michelle Par

            And he wrote a song mentioning 3M?

        • Dave

          I think the difference is that 3M made a subdued change to their logo without claiming to be a tribute. On the other hand, General Mills shoehorned their branding in to what was supposed to be a tribute.

          Basically, 3M changed their branding as a tribute, whereas General Mills PUT their branding on a tribute.

          I think if General Mills had left the Cheerio out and had just used their typeface (which is pretty recognizable in its own right), it wouldn’t have been nearly as egregious.

          • Rob

            Agreed. GM’s tribute seems both crass and hasty. RIP – really? But if there are Cheerios in heaven, it’s all good.

        • Rob

          Good luck going out to buy a 1967 Corvette fastback, a car that’s as iconic as Prince. But by all means, do enjoy your Cheerios.

          • tboom

            That would be a ’63 split back, although ’67 was that same wonderful fastback ‘second generation’ model.

          • Rob

            Thanks : )

        • Jen Adler

          Prince never wrote a song about Cheerios. He did write a song called Little Red Corvette however. All of this is covered in the article which you presumably DID NOT READ. Lazy puke.

      • fromthesidelines21

        Can a Cheerio be crass? Lucky Charms probably but Cheerios?

        I liked both 3M and the Cheerio tributes. I’m sure I’m influenced by being from Minnesota and understand the rest of the world might not get that.

        As others have said it isn’t a big difference to me between a logo change or showing a product if the sentiment is appropriate. (See Four Loko on how not to do it).

        • Rob

          Like Lucky Charms, Cheerios can be crass, but safer to eat.

          • X.A. Smith

            According to Prince’s song “Style,” from the Emanciapation album, he ate Cap’n Crunch. “With soy milk, ’cause milk is for calves.”

    • tboom

      I agree, I really don’t see how 3M hit the mark.

      • Rob

        3M’ s is less about selling a product or including a specific product as a visual element, and it has a visual reference to Prince’s signature song. It’s way more of an homage to Prince and his untimely death than the General Mills piece.

    • PaulJ

      Cheerios wasn’t artistic

    • Rob

      : )

    • Rob


    • Jen Adler

      3M’s isn’t selling a product in their depiction. It’s not like they rigged it up on Post-It notes…in contrast, the un-classy that is General Mills couldn’t resist throwing a grody Cheerio in there. Of course. Twits.

  • bad penguin

    Now if there was a company that sold starfish and coffee…

  • Ben Chorn

    Interesting there’s no mention of the Minnesota sports teams. I think they all changed logos on social media and offered messages or tributes.

  • thatgirlie

    pretty impressive “experts” you drummed up there!

  • Formerly Certain

    This also goes for media outlets seeking eyeballs and radio listeners. At some point you are not serving the news function any longer, just grabbing attention using Prince’s death as the bait.

    • Where is that point exactly?

      • Formerly Certain

        It’s a very competitive world for eyeballs and ears today. Management wants revenue. Survival depends on getting that audience attention. It makes crossing that line very tempting.

        It’s like the discussions I used to hear many decades ago in journalism class about objectivity and how can you be sure you have it. It’s sometimes hard to get it right, but sometimes you get a feel for when you’re not being objective. And I suppose a good journalist would get a gut feel when this is no longer newsworthy and has veered into attention-getting.

        I think it could be said that there was absolutely no need for any advertiser to say anything about Prince. Do they put up ads about Syrian war deaths? There are countless other significant events that they are silent about all the time. The death of a world famous pop star? Why are they offering condolences except for something self-serving? Attracting Prince fans to feel favorably toward their product? That seems most likely.

  • ALEX

    Nvidia posted on twitter their logo in purple instead of their usual green and it said, while they have no real relation to Prince I thought it was a good example of something simple

  • Jen Adler

    Disagree. 3M was the clear winner between them and Chevrolet. Especially since they are a Minnesotan company and Chevrolet is not. Google did a nice job too. The General Mills one did suck though. I haven’t a clue why anyone would expect it to not suck however. They ruin everything they touch as far as I can tell. Also, they are cretins.