We need to talk about dying


Asking people to face the consequences of their death is a big challenge for brands that deal with post-life services, but attitudes are changing thanks to a radical ad by Aviva and web services that highlight the benefits of facing the inevitable.

A year after Aviva’s life insurance campaign featuring comedian Paul Whitehouse as a deceased father looking down on his family, the brand is to revisit the difficult topic of the importance of preparing for that only certainty in life: death.

Aviva UK head of brand Sue Helmont reveals few details of the new creative, due out soon, but says the emotional impact of the last execution paved the way for more open discussions about death and how the industry speaks to consumers.

“The Paul Whitehouse campaign overall has been running for about two years but the life insurance execution we launched last January only ran for four weeks, and hasn’t been shown since,” says Helmont (see Viewpoint, below). “The fact people still talk about it shows the impact it had.”

The campaign divided many observers. Some welcomed an advertisement that was moving and thought provoking. Others accused Aviva of exploiting guilt tactics and emotional manipulation to drive its life insurance sales.

Helmont agrees it was a risky route to take, but that the campaign’s achievements in widening the discussion and breaking down taboos around death made it a success.

“I’m proud to have been part of ‘releasing’ those conversations we were having on social media around the campaign, to the extent that people were coming forward to talk about how having life insurance meant there was one thing less to worry about among all the concerns in life,” says Helmont.

She claims that not only is the ad still a conversation point a year on, but has helped other players in the industry broach what can be an awkward subject with customers.

Brands have a role to play in helping people face up to death, she adds. She points to examples such as cancer charity Macmillan, which tackles the serious issues of cancer and death through acclaimed campaigns such as “End of life shouldn’t be the end of choice” in terms of palliative care.

“The more that brands can do to help people face up to the realities and big questions in life, the better,” says Helmont.

The Co-operative Funeral Care followed suit last year, with lighthearted TV ads showcasing individuals planning the celebration of their life through selecting their favourite songs and even how they would arrive at their own funerals.

The Co-op’s Life Planning division, which focuses on funeral pre-payment plans, relaunched at the end of last year to provide greater clarity around the variety and personalisation of the products it offers. New choices include headstone selection and a joint plan for couples.

Co-op Life Planning senior business development manager Helen Chandler says marketing a product that people aren’t always open to talking about is a challenge.

“We’re dealing with a product that no one wants to face up to purchasing. We appreciate that no one wants to think about their funeral. So the creative we worked on with APS Group and Refinery Marketing is based around people understanding the emotional and financial benefits during their lifetime and for their family and friends at the time of the funeral,” she says.

“It also ensures that the funeral care teams in our national network of funeral homes completely understand how the plans work.”

There is a growing demand for the personalisation of funerals, adds Chandler, including more non-denominational ceremonies.

“People are becoming more aware of the choices they have and that today it’s acceptable to have a funeral how you want it,” she says.

“The market is growing as people are becoming more open to considering their options and taking control of their affairs. They have more of their own ideas. We sold more than 100,000 funeral plans last year and it indicates that people are more comfortable with it.”

Making light of what can be a heavy topic is this month’s inaugural four-day festival at London’s Southbank Centre, focusing on mortality and death through music, lectures and workshops.

Topics at “Death: Southbank Centre’s Festival for the Living” include speakers’ personal accounts of their own bereavement, discussing death with children and debates around death-related subjects such as cryonics (preservation of a body by freezing), organ donation, assisted suicide and the rise of female funeral directors.

The Southbank Centre’s artistic director Jude Kelly says the festival was borne out of a desire to provide practical information, meaty content and entertainment around a topic that, as she puts it, “unites us all”.

She questions why people are so reluctant to face up to it, saying: “In the same way that the presence of humour in a well-observed wake can lighten the load, we hope our new festival can begin to allow some light onto a subject too often consigned to the shadows.”

The festival also promises to alert attendees to what happens to their data and digital presence after their death – a dilemma that a burgeoning industry is booming around.

Insight consultancy Stylus last year noted “digital death” as a niche to watch and a study published by Goldsmiths at the University of London revealed that 10% of people in the UK will leave their passwords in their wills so their next of kin can take control of their online accounts.

Solicitor Matthew Strain told Sky News at the time: “With more personal content being stored online, the question of what happens when you’re gone becomes more important. We have started to advise clients on the topic of digital inheritance.”

Online subscription services such as Legacy Locker, Entrustet and iCroak offer a tiered pricing system based around the storage and passing on of passwords to a nominated guardian when a user dies.

Entrustet also offers a comprehensive “how to” list for dealing with digital service providers such as Hotmail, Yahoo, Google and eBay when an account holder has died. Accounts can be notoriously difficult to shut down if you do not have the account holder’s password, with many requiring bereaved relatives to deal with customer services and provide a death certificate and for people to deal with customer services.

British start-up iCroak is looking to gain traction in the UK market ahead of US rival Legacy Locker. Users can either open a basic account for free, pay a yearly subscription of £10 or a one-off lifetime fee of £150. About 500 members have joined so far, split evenly across free and paid-for accounts. The site is attracting about 5,000 visitors per month.

Founder Paul Golding insists the service is more secure, convenient and cost-effective than using alternatives such as solicitors, banks or home-made Excel spreadsheets.

“The idea came up when I received a Facebook communication from the account of my favourite aunty who had recently died. My brother and I then discussed what we would do with our digital accounts when we died. We had a look and saw there wasn’t anything in the UK to help with this so we thought we were on to something,” Golding recalls.

The name iCroak has been met with mixed reactions, but Golding’s rationale was to pinpoint a name that was both memorable and light-hearted. “The name has been described as ‘abrupt’ and ‘inappropriate’ but we have also been described as ‘deliciously humorous’,” he says. “It’s a really serious subject but we wanted to bring some lightness to it.”

The future of digital death services, predicts Golding, most likely lies in partnering with businesses such as solicitors so they can offer the solution to their clients.

“This has to be a growing industry purely because of the presence of the web. More of our services are being electronically delivered to us, so there has to be some form of management after death.”

ICroak has gained substantial media coverage since its launch last October and is preparing to release its first TV ads.

As the Southbank Centre’s Jude Kelly says, death is the one thing that all consumers have in common. And as Aviva’s Sue Helmont notes, through insightful messaging and a sometimes unorthodox tone of voice, brands can play a crucial role in bringing life to death.


Sue Helmont

Head of brand
Aviva UK

“We tried a variety of platforms and potential scripts with the Paul Whitehouse life insurance campaign (where he is shown as a deceased father looking down on his family) and we knew it wasn’t without its risks, as it is a difficult subject to talk about.

What drove it was an insight we had around people buying life insurance. At a rational level, we all know that having life insurance is probably a good thing, in the same way I know having a will would be a good thing but I always manage to find good reasons for why I haven’t got around to it yet. So simply shouting at our target audience to say “you should buy life insurance” or “it’s quick and cheap and easy to buy”, which is what many providers do, wasn’t going to cut it for us.

Talking point: Aviva’s TV ad for life insurance sparked a lot of debate

This customer insight led us to create a more emotional campaign to break that category convention. And customers told us they wanted to be driven away from complacency.

In the economic climate we’re currently operating in, an insurance policy is often seen as a luxury that can be cut back on. This particular campaign, then, used the message that family life is better when it’s protected. In a time of difficulty, your family should be well provided for, should the worst thing happen.

In anticipation of potentially upsetting people, we worked closely with a bereavement charity called Grief Encounter to ensure we had the right insight into the grief process rather than just being a big old corporate brand selling life insurance. It was important to us that we prepared ourselves for how grief actually feels. We also worked closely with our internal claims handling team who speak to bereaved policy holders.

The campaign had a positive impact on conversion rates. It also had a huge brand impact in terms of our brand perception.

We are working on our next campaign. This time of year is when people focus on sorting their finances out, as this is the kind of thing that makes it on to people’s New Year’s resolution lists. We hope the new campaign will have a similar emotional impact to the last one. I think this campaign has longevity too.”



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