When Prince passed away unexpectedly last week, there was a sincere expression of grief across social media as fans dealt with the shock and sadness of the announcement. But there were other expressions that were, perhaps, not as sincere.

Cheerios

 

This kind of clumsiness isn’t new, either. Take this reaction to the passing of David Bowie a couple of months ago:

Crocs

 

It’s hard to imagine a product or service that would pair worse with David Bowie than Crocs (“Slip-ons for the Oblivious Dad”), but look how lazy that ‘tribute’ image is. Even the photo of the shoe—their own product—looks like bad stock photography.

It’s probably no wonder that Cheerios and Crocs both deleted their tweets shortly after they showed up. But it’s also not a surprise that they felt compelled to make them in the first place. It’s difficult for brands to wade into trending topics on Twitter without causing controversy—sometimes disastrously, as when DiGiorno inadvertently used a domestic violence campaign to advertise frozen pizza.

Expressions of mourning and respect are potentially less loaded, particularly when the deceased is a respected artist. And, in theory, there shouldn’t be anything that controversial about expressing those sentiments. So how do brands keep screwing it up?

Here’s where they go wrong:

1. They Shoehorn Themselves into the Discussion
What makes both the Cheerios and Crocs tweets (and, to be fair, plenty of others) so tone deaf is that they insisted on branding grief. It’s hard to know which was worse. The Crocs image is lazy and gross, but the Cheerios tweet seems almost engineered to offend by the way it forces you to look closer. That little Cheerio dotting the “i” is a bizarrely cheerful element that clearly exists to make sure no one will forget who the message is coming from. It’s like those tee shirts that demand your attention for the purpose of insulting you.

2. They Sound Inhuman
The thing brands have to remember is that they’re talking to real, grieving human beings. It doesn’t matter that the person who died is a celebrity, or even if the people mourning never actually knew the deceased. These are intense, personal feelings of loss, and they’re very real. If a brand decides it absolutely must enter this arena, it needs to be respectfully handled.

Think of how you would conduct yourself at a funeral. If you decided to approach the bereft, you might say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” You would not suggest they rehydrate with the new Gatorade Fierce® Green Apple flavor (“The Griefquencher”).

3. They Rush to Be First
Most brands will spend a lot of time, money, and effort crafting their ads, messaging, and communications. But for some reason this all goes right to hell on social media, where posting first seems to trump posting well. Consider, though, this well-received Nike+ Run Club tweet, posted two days after the Boston Marathon bombing:

Nike+

In this case, it makes sense that a running shoe company like Nike would feel compelled to comment on the tragedy. But by letting things process and thinking through how they would respond, they end up with a statement that feels honest, human, and sincere.

4. They Don’t Know When to Shut Up

There’s another lesson in the Nike tweet above, which is that relevance matters. Nike has very clear connections to the Boston Marathon, and the running community at large. Crocs does not have a clear connection to David Bowie. Nike has, over time, built a relationship with the community it’s speaking to. Crocs, well…you get the point.

You can’t force relevance, and you shouldn’t try. If you can’t come up with a clear, compelling reason your brand should make a statement after a tragedy or a person’s death, maybe it’s best to be quiet. At least that way you won’t end up on anybody’s list.