It’s hard to build a brand when nobody wants to think about your services. Yet, the demand remains strong. In fact, the total addressable market is, well… everyone.
That’s life in the funeral industry.
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Try as you might to avoid thinking about them, those austere buildings we drive by everyday have a vital role in our society. Behind every funeral home is a small business owner, someone who more than likely inherited that business from their parents and grandparents before them, and who is beholden to the same entrepreneurial challenges facing every small business proprietor. Things like bookkeeping, managing employees, serving customers, and even marketing.
Marketing in the most basic sense is communicating the value of a product or service in a human way. It’s a people business. Most of the time, the challenge is communicating how a product or service will make a person’s life better, more fulfilling, or easier.
But what if you’re marketing something that doesn’t make life more fulfilling… but the end of life?
That’s a challenge Courtney Gould Miller takes personally.
“We tend to have very long standing relationships with our clients. Many of those we serve have been with us over 30 years.”
Gould Miller is the C.O.O., Legal Counsel & Head of Digital Marketing at MKJ Marketing, an agency that exclusively serves the funeral industry.
Helping small family businesses navigate the challenges of advertising, pricing, digital strategy, and branding is difficult enough, but when you add the emotionally thorny issue of death to the mix, it turns into a delicate art that Gould Miller’s family has spent three decades mastering.
All in the Family
To say the funeral industry is steeped in family tradition would be an understatement. About 86% of the 19,000 funeral homes in the U.S. are privately owned by families or individuals.
Family is also what brought Gould Miller into the industry.
Her parents met at Batesville Casket Company (now just “Batesville”) back in the late 70s. Gould Miller’s mother ran marketing for the company, and her father oversaw H.R.. Out of that experience grew MKJ Marketing: the first marketing agency to focus solely on the funeral industry.
That’s the world Gould Miller was born into.
“People ask me ‘When did you join (the funeral industry)?’ I mean really, since I was born,” she says with a laugh. “I was in the early television commercials and newspaper ads, all the way up to running errands in middle school and high school, working television shoots, and writing copy.”
Gould Miller didn’t start her career in funeral service, however. After graduating from Vanderbilt, she set off for California to study business law at UCLA. From there, she took a job as an associate lawyer at the prestigious O’Melveny & Myers firm, spending nearly 7 years representing clients in securities, insurance, and regulatory disputes.
But there was something about the family business that drew her back.
“Over time, I had some clients of ours invite me to come speak at industry meanings, and I realized I had a very strong calling to the industry.”
And so in January of 2016, she left Los Angeles and moved to Nashville to open a brand new office for MKJ Marketing.
Gould Miller returned to the funeral world at an interesting time. The industry finds itself at a bit of a crossroads. The population of citizens over the age of 65 years old is set to more than double in the next 30 years, but at the same time people are spending far less on funeral services.
Revenue in the funeral industry has failed to keep up with inflation across the last decade, primarily due to an increased demand for low-cost cremation services. In 2005, just under one third of people chose cremation as their method of disposition (an industry euphemism I’m quite drawn to), but that number is expected to rise to over 70% by 2030, which would result in a deep cut to the margins of local funeral businesses.
That aging population is increasingly digital as well—70% of Baby Boomers own a Facebook account.
Growing markets, slimmer margins, and more digital access: a familiar challenge for many modern marketers. But for small, family-owned businesses dealing with a line of work fraught with extreme emotions, these are big, existential hazards.
“Funeral homes typically consider marketing to be participating in their local Rotary or Key Club,” Gould Miller explains. “It’s such a caring industry, many of them are hesitant to make themselves stand out, until they get a competitor that’s low cost or is taking swipes at (their business).”
There’s a tendency for marketers (particularly in the digital realm) to think that what works for one business is sure to work for theirs.
The latest growth hack, social network, or new software platform that worked for someone else is going to solve all of your problems. But this line of thinking fails to account for the different needs of each business. Every customer, every market, and every buyer persona is unique and requires unique solutions.
Still, that doesn’t stop us from trying and hoping.
For most marketers, a failed experiment might result in some wasted time and a little bit of ad budget. But in funeral marketing, the stakes are much higher.
“We’re constantly dealing with emotions in a way that I think most industries are not.”
MKJ is always walking a fine line between helping clients grow their market share and remaining sensitive to the fact that the people their clients serve are grieving. TV ads must be memorable, but respectful. Digital ads must be effective, but not overwhelming.
Simply put, nothing is ever simple when it comes to funeral marketing.
“We’ve seen other local companies try to apply what they know from their other local businesses into our industry,” Gould Miller explains with caution in her voice. “They’ll try to make light of the funeral industry, but people don’t want to make light of something when they just suffered a loss.”
Take for example retargeted ads—a staple for any modern marketer. A local marketing agency, used to working with car dealerships and restaurants, might target users who recently searched the word “obituaries” with social and banner ads for their funeral home client. Applying what they know from the used car business, they set a budget to retarget these users 10 times a day.
That might be a good way to sell a Certified Pre-Owned Honda, but it could destroy the already raw emotions of someone who just lost a loved one. Can you imagine? You’re planning the funeral of a parent, and now every time you open Facebook you see a crass ad for a local funeral home.
“That local provider doesn’t understand the funeral industry, to the extent of what kind of language to use, what kind of images to use, and what kinds of tactics and strategies are appropriate given the levels of emotion,” she says tactfully. “And that’s where we see a lot of other marketing companies fall down.”
Funeral homes don’t exclusively deal with grieving people, however. There’s a big focus on what’s called “pre-need;” helping families plan their services before they pass. But even this provides a challenge.
“The biggest challenge that we deal with is that people don’t want to think about death. Funeral homes have the lowest brand awareness of many industries because of that.”
When a new client comes to MKJ, they want it to be a relationship that lasts. Many of their customers have been with the agency for decades, trusting them with everything from direct mail campaigns to training, even creating online check-out platforms for cremation services.
It all comes back to their deep understanding of the market and industry. Different funeral homes have different needs, cultures, personalities, and customers. A one-size-fits-all approach is exactly what they want to avoid.
“Each funeral home is distinct and offers different things to their community and needs to be marketed in a different way,” says Gould Miller. “Other marketing companies tend to treat each business as the same. We couldn’t disagree more.”
Everybody Dies, But…
People in the funeral industry are used to the kind of surprised reactions they get from others when they tell someone about their line of work. It’s a unique job, there’s no getting around that.
But there’s a cliched reaction that Gould Miller hears regularly that underscores a fundamental misunderstanding about marketing.
“I often hear ‘Well, everybody dies so you’re good. What a great business to be in!’ But you know, everybody eats too, and restaurants are one of the highest failure rate industries.”
If only it were so easy. A product or service, even one that everyone needs, is only as good as your ability to communicate it. The most successful funeral homes are the ones that effectively communicate their offerings and treat their customers with a level of kindness and sensitivity that you would expect from a family member.
The emotional lows of grief give way to emotional highs as funeral businesses help people find closure in their loss. The relationship between funeral homes and their clients, when done right, starts to feel less like a transaction and more like a relationship.
That’s a level of customer success that most businesses aspire to, but rarely achieve.
“It’s very common for funeral homes to get thank you note after thank you note for the services they provided,” Gould Miller says. “You’re not sending thank you notes to the local pizza joint.”
Death is a scary and intimidating thing. But for funeral homes, it’s something they navigate on a daily basis. When they guide a family through that unfamiliar territory, it’s something that sticks with them.
For Gould Miller, working at MKJ is an extension of that service, and it’s what brings her back to the office every morning.
“The work that we do is incredibly meaningful, and I think people understand that when they have a death and interact with a funeral home,” adds Gould Miller. “After they do, they see the extraordinary amount of care and generosity that comes from funeral homes. We view ourselves as very much an extension of that.”