An alarming number of celebrities passed away during 2016, with the loss of each hitting fans hard. December alone saw the loss of a music icon and movie legend: pop prince George Michael, and beloved Star Wars princess, Carrie Fisher along with her mother, Debbie Reynolds.

In the days following the death of a much-loved celebrity, their name often becomes a hot topic online. The public uses social media to express grief, thought pieces and eulogizing articles are published, sales of artists' work skyrockets and Google searches for celebrities' names spike.

Peak in online searches following celebrity deaths. Source: Google Trends

It's therefore understandable that brands are eager to join in the conversation; after all, they are advised to listen to their target audience, identify their interests and join in the discussion. But is it ever OK for a brand to attempt to capitalise on people's grief?

When brands get it wrong

With the loss of so many high profile names in recent months, brands have been quick to jump on the bandwagon and acknowledge the sad news. An example of this is the reaction following the death of Prince in April.

Dozens of brands used Prince's signature colour as a nod of respect to the late singer-songwriter. However, the use of the logo by 3M and the product reference used by Cheerios lacked respect by being so obviously self-promoting. The fact that 3M used their brand logo and Cheerios used a Cheerio to dot the letter 'i' upset a lot of people. Although brand awareness is the aim of most companies commenting on such topics, a lack of tact could have an adverse effect on a brand's popularity.

Cheerios promptly pulled down their tweet after they received a backlash of complaints from upset users.

Other organisations that didn't quite get it right include The Weather Channel and NASA which both shared purple images 'in honour of Prince'. These links were tenuous but at least the companies weren't explicitly trying to sell anything.

One of the main offenders was Maker's Mark, which changed the colour of its iconic wax-dripped whiskey bottle from red to purple.

Not only was this a repurposed ad from a previous campaign rather than a well thought out tribute to an icon, it also managed to besmirch the star's memory, as the bourbon distiller ignored the fact that Prince was a passionate anti-alcohol activist. This generated a lot of negative publicity, as users took to Twitter to express their disgust at the opportunistic marketing tactic.

When brands get it right

A few brands have managed to get away with their online tributes. This post by guitar brand Fender after the passing of David Bowie displays a poignant and respectful quote, with no mention of brand name, logo or product - it simply acknowledges a loss to the world of music.

Chevrolet produced one of the more tasteful tributes. Again, the image had no direct mention of the brand, simply a reference to Prince's hit song 'Little Red Corvette'. This clever and respectful tribute gained over 12,000 retweets in just one day.

As proven by Fender and Chevrolet, brands joining in the conversation after a celebrity's death can be done well, but it's a risky tactic. If brands are keen to keep consumers on-side, the safest way for them to gain respect and maintain sentiment is to stay out of it completely.

Beyond social media

Social media isn't the only way that brands can acknowledge the loss of a star; there are a number of ways that such tragedies can boost business in a subtler fashion.

For example, when a celebrity dies, demand for their products increases. Whether a retailer sells their art, books, music or movies, increasing the coverage within search activity is a good tactical move to increase sales without risking the brand's reputation by being insensitive or heavy-handed.

Creating reactive content can also enable brands to take advantage of the change in search behaviour. For example, when people in the public eye pass away, it causes others to contemplate their own mortality. This provides the opportunity for relevant industries such as law firms and insurance companies to create quality content around life cover and wills so it's easily accessible as searches for related terms rise.

However, if attempting either of these methods it is important not to mention the celebrity that inspired this timely strategy as this will immediately put brands not only back in the firing line of angry users, but also back in the unforgiving spotlight of the media.

As a brand it is important to be aware of your customers' interests and to make an effort to join in the conversation, however, if the conversation involves commenting on a celebrity death it's vital that any interaction involving such topics avoids overt self-promotion, and is relevant, subtle and respectful.