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Why More Brands Should Get Grief-Smart This Mother's Day, and Every Day

Sometimes, Mother’s Day — and any number of other marketing holidays celebrating relationships — can hurt. When brands go beyond sales pitches to show their humanity around these occasions, they can set themselves apart and create the more authentic connections customers seek.

This month — amid the onslaught of ads for flowers, jewelry and other Mother’s Day gifts — an unexpected email might also hit your inbox: an offer to opt out.

That might seem like counterintuitive marketing around a holiday that involves more than $28 billion in consumer spending. Yet, it is part of a fledgling but growing Thoughtful Marketing Movement, started in 2019 by UK-based flower shop Bloom & Wild. The company noticed something that is all too evident to millions of people: Sometimes, Mother’s Day — and any number of other marketing holidays celebrating relationships — can hurt.

While corporate promotions are carefully designed and beta-tested to evoke strong feeling, for many people that emotion is the sucker-punch of grief. When you've experienced the death of someone in your life, ads like these can catch you off guard and serve as a painful reminder of all you have lost:

“Give Mom the love she gave you!” (I can’t, because she’s dead.)

“Your partner will love these Valentine's gifts!” (I'm sure she would; but we're divorced.)

“The perfect Father's Day gifts to say thank you!” (It’s too late now, isn’t it?)

Simply checking your social feed or opening your email can unleash a barrage of unwanted feelings. In an era of empathy, this kind of corporate communication ignores the experience of millions of bereaved families — something that seems particularly tone deaf as countless people are still reeling from losses from the pandemic.

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These ads can make vulnerable, grieving people feel alone — marginalized by the culture around them. That’s hard enough for an adult; but consider that one in five children has experienced the death of someone significant in their lives, and 5.6 million have dealt with the death of a parent or sibling. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day land differently for them, every day.

“Their experience isn’t just a personal tragedy,” said Brie Overton, a bereavement expert and clinical director at Experience Camps — a nonprofit that champions the nation’s grieving children. “Research shows that unaddressed grief is an urgent public health issue, one that can have significant long-term impacts on both mental health and physical wellbeing. Bereaved children are far more likely to be at risk for mental health challenges, academic decline, substance misuse, and even early death.”

This is a complex issue — one that deserves more focus and funding. Yet, enabling people to opt out of certain marketing messages is a small but significant step that companies can take to help.

It's actually quite simple. Companies can send an email or post a link on social that allows people to opt out of certain holiday communications. This simple, powerful action can show that a company truly cares for its customers, not just their wallets.

Forward-thinking retailers including Away, Etsy, Milk Bar and Pandora have already invited people to opt out of ads with Mother’s Day messages. Importantly, this doesn’t mean the marketing stops. People who opt out still receive brand communications; those messages are just a bit more personalized since they omit the reference to a painful holiday.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. These leading brands have gotten customer love, broad organic amplification on social, and glowing media coverage. Even people who don’t want to opt out appreciate the brands’ humanity. And, while this trend might be amplified by the pandemic, its impact goes far beyond those who have experienced a death. People can find holidays hard for a range of reasons: infertility, fraught relationships, difficult memories. The list goes on.

Hopefully, we’ll soon see opt-outs for Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, even pet-related communications — with the potential to opt back in should someone’s feelings or life circumstances shift. Holidays and observances give brands a special chance to make a connection bigger than the product they’re trying to sell — and the idea is catching on.

So far, more than 150 companies have already joined the Thoughtful Marketing Movement, and with good reason. Today, customers expect companies to know them and see them as a whole person. By offering them a way to engage that also sees their grief, companies can set themselves apart and create the more authentic connections they seek.

This kind of brand leadership can have ripple effects. It got more people talking about grief and even sparked a discussion in the UK Parliament: MP Mark Warman shared his experiences with grief, in remarks that may be unusually personal for most Parliamentary proceedings but that exemplify the kind of honest grief leadership we need now.

We need more leadership like this. Action from 150 brands is a great start, but it’s not enough. Now, we’re acting on what we have heard during more than 520,000 hours with grieving youth, and inviting companies to #OfferOptOut. This is a real opportunity for authentic brands to help shine a light on grief, and make millions of grievers feel seen and supported.

We applaud those who have already stepped up to accelerate this positive trend. We also look forward to hearing about even more companies lending their voice to shine a light on the issue of grief, adopt more grief-smart practices, and show millions of people that they are not alone.

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