I grew up in a 900-square-foot apartment above my parents’ funeral home, sharing bunk beds and negotiating closet space with my sister. Every floor was covered in carpet: red shag in our bedroom, brown shag in the living room and – yes – more brown shag in the bathroom and kitchen. The living room walls sported floor-to-ceiling wood paneling (very 1970s), and the floorboards creaked when you walked down the hallway and up the stairs.
During visitations, my dad would stand at the bottom of the stairs, flashing the hallway lights to get our attention. Often, what followed was a whispered reminder that the walls were very thin, and would we please turn down the television and stop bickering so loudly?
My earliest memories of my parents are social ones – watching them talk to pastors they knew, florists they recommended and families they served. Mischievous old men were always winking at my mom and thanking her for sliding them an extra ham bun or two during the funeral luncheons. Little old ladies with penciled eyebrows were always stopping my dad halfway through the Pizza Ranch salad bar to tearfully thank him for everything he had done to ease the passing of their late husbands. And my parents were always greeting their client families with a smile and a hug, asking about their grandkids, their rose gardens and their knitting projects. Like many of you, they remembered the names and faces of everyone they served. My parents knew these families, and these families knew my parents.
As is often the case, my childhood had a significant impact on my views as an adult. Growing up in a funeral home taught me a lot about empathy, sacrifice and – perhaps most importantly – the value and fragility of life. It also taught me a great deal about work ethic, small business ownership and marketing. The latter, in particular, has served me well in my career as a professional marketer, and the lessons I learned growing up in the funeral home continue to inform my approach to marketing today. Lesson #1: You are always saying something about your business.
The first spring we lived at the funeral home, my dad oiled up his lawn mower, wheeled it out to the front of the funeral home and started cutting neat, diagonal rows back and forth across the lawn. Within minutes, six neighbors were peaking out from curtained bay windows. Ten minutes after that, the accountant across the street walked over, waved to my dad and calmly explained that, in the city limits, no one mowed their grass on Sunday.
It was the first of many gentle rebukes he received over the next two weeks – many from people who had heard of the misstep from a friend of a friend’s grocer’s niece’s podiatrist (or some other derivative). And it was my first meaningful experience with what I’ve since dubbed the “Mrs. Kravitz phenomenon” – the tendency for high profile members of the community (like funeral professionals) to be closely scrutinized by their neighbors.
Growing up, I understood that public perception is a powerful force – one that can greatly benefit your funeral home when used well, and also one that can cause tremendous damage when not used appropriately. That was my first lesson in marketing: you are always saying something about your business, through your words and also through your actions.
When dad mowed his grass on Sunday, his actions weren’t necessarily bad – he was simply indicating to his neighbors that he was unaware of one of their community norms. Unfortunately, that message (when repeated often enough) can have ripple effects: someone who doesn’t understand community norms likely doesn’t understand community members. And someone who doesn’t understand community members is unlikely to gain their trust in safeguarding the dignity of their loved ones.
Contrast that message with the ones my dad sent through his other actions: hosting an annual prayer breakfast for the community’s religious leaders, volunteering as a member of the town festival steering committee and donating time and resources to the local historical museum. Those actions sent very different messages – messages about an understanding of and commitment to the community. Messages like that are much more effective in endearing client families to a funeral home.
Lesson #2: Your personal brand matters.
In my hometown, you didn’t do business with a funeral home. You did business with a funeral director. When families talked about end-of-life care, they talked about calling Jay or calling Roger – never calling a funeral home. Because funeral service is relational, not transactional, this is likely true in your communities as well. Often, a family feels more connected to the funeral home staff than they do to the funeral home business. That’s where personal branding comes into play.
The link between your personal brand and your business brand can be a very good thing – think of it in terms of exponential growth. When you do good work in your community, the positive perception of your business brand increases at the same rate as your personal brand. But the reverse is also true – negative perception of you as an individual often leads to equally negative perception of your funeral home.
Sometimes, the connection between a personal brand and professional brand makes sense – I’m not sure many people would recommend the services of a marriage counselor who had been married and divorced nine times. But other times, the association is more ambiguous.
A former classmate of mine is a very gifted writer. She’s completed three novels and a number of peer-reviewed academic papers, but her true passion is political satire. I think she’s absolutely brilliant and always enjoy reading her scathing rebukes of both sides of the aisle – often peppered with clever humor and uncommonly good insight. But, as passionate as she is about her satire, she refuses to publish it under her own name or in any local publications. Why? Because her husband owns a small business in town, and she doesn’t want to offend his customers.
You may feel – as I do – that this is somewhat unfair. There’s nothing wrong with having opinions, and all the better that she uses her incredible talent to express them. But she understands that when you own a small business, you are the brand. And what you say (or write, or post) can impact the way community members view your business.
Lesson #3: Brand advocates matter even more.
I read once that the shortest distance between two people is not a straight line. It’s a compelling story. I think this is especially true when it comes to brand advocates – those consumers who have compelling stories to share about their experience with your funeral home.
Today’s consumers foster inherent skepticism toward traditional advertising. Instead, they trust and rely on recommendations from people who have earned relational capital: friends, mentors, co-workers, pastors, doctors, etc. To effectively reach these consumers, you need individuals who have first-hand knowledge of your funeral home and can share their positive experiences through word-of-mouth referrals.
Brand advocates are invaluable assets to your funeral home business. These individuals are well placed to offer credible recommendations to their peers. They are your most effective recruiters, a compelling blend of advocacy and authenticity.
So, how do you find and foster brand advocates?
First, you need to minister to your communities. The funeral profession is one of service, of greathearted giving for the benefit of grieving families. Extend that exceptional selflessness to your communities through generous donation of your time, energy and resources. Go out and build relationships so your funeral home business is top-of-mind when opportunities arise for brand advocates to share your story.
Then, find ways to use your resources to build a community of advocates. Connect with them on social media. Regularly communicate with them through email campaigns, holiday cards and educational materials. Provide thoughtful and effective aftercare services. Invite them to events at your funeral home. When you see them, greet them by name and ask them about their grandson’s soccer team.
Demonstrate how memorable they are so they can return the favor by explaining to their friends and families how memorable you are. FBA
Danielle Burmeister, Homesteaders’ Marketing Communications Lead, joined the company in 2015. The daughter of two funeral professionals, she has firsthand knowledge of and a deep appreciation for the business as well as 10 years of marketing and communications experience. You can reach Danielle at [email protected]