“I dare you to take this helicopter to see the cemetery with me,” said my new client, a swaggering Latin American land developer who reached out to me for help with a marketing problem. This was over 20 years ago, when I was working to brand Unilever’s new power brand in Ecuador; this meant I had the right connections in the right country, and that is how I came into contact with this developer. The client bought some land on the outskirts of Guayaquil, the country’s second-largest city at the time, to build his newest project: a cemetery.
When I met him on Saturday, before delving into the product and brand, he made a crazy proposition: Get into a helicopter and fly over the city to understand the population demographics and who could afford what in terms of funeral products. Back at home, I had two young kids, 10 and 13, to consider. But I never turn down a dare. So I boarded the chopper.
As we flew above the city, my client helped me visualize the market size for each of his products, from the most expensive mausoleums to the most affordable burial vaults. For the first three years, he told me, the cemetery had enjoyed some success through the sale of pricey mausoleums to friends in his inner circle, but he was struggling to get the locals to buy standard lots. He told me his plots ranged in price from $10,000 down to $1,000, but thought the people of the city saw only a cemetery for the rich. He assumed my job would be to get the people to see his lots as affordable, but after doing some research, I realized the perception was less about cost and more a matter of significant distance.
In branding, we’re in the market of elevating willingness to buy through value and delight—we make things desirable. From sexy, top-dollar items like computers to where you want to be buried, every brand needs to create desire. But how do you convince people to desire a cemetery?
This is how I did it:
THE SALESMAN OF DEATH
After the Saturday helicopter ride, I spent some time visiting funeral homes as a secret shopper. I assumed the identity of a Colombian expat moving to Guayaquil with my aging parents, for whom I was seeking pre-paid burial services. In hindsight, it was anything but credible, but I got a good sense of the industry brokers and how they understood my client’s products.
Sunday was the most important day on my journey of discovery. In Latin America, we have a healthy relationship with death and celebrate it regularly. On Sunday, we go to church, and many use this routine to visit their parents or grandparents at the nearby cemetery. Like most cities in Latin America, Guayaquil’s central cemetery was already at capacity, and the only land available to build a new one was far from the city’s center. The demand for a cemetery was there, but people weren’t choosing my client’s.
Creative branding bridges the distance between people and a product or service, rendering it desirable through a sequence of memorable moments. Steve Jobs was a genius at this. People still desire the next iPhone like oxygen. Rolex is another company with enough brand desire to motivate people to pay thousands of dollars for a watch, and be willing to wait three years to receive it. That’s a serious upper hand.
The cemetery’s location made it much less desirable. Unlike New York City, which packs eight million people into a little over 300 square miles, Guayaquil spreads three million people over 1,000 square miles. It continues to have one of Ecuador’s highest poverty rates, with records showing 14% in 2018; only about 16% have a car. No bus routes went out to my client’s cemetery either, which meant very few people would have easy regular access to funerals, much less be able to keep up their regular visits to deceased loved ones so far from the city center. No one wanted to be buried where it would be impossible for anyone to visit them.
MASTER THE TECHNIQUE OF SEDUCTION
To seduce people into desiring this apparently distant cemetery, we needed to offer more than just funeral plots—it had to become a destination. We started by solving basic problems, like adding a funeral bus that could take whole families to mourn together and encouraging the city to create new bus routes to the area. To that end, we dedicated a piece of the cemetery land to develop a recreation park with monuments and picnic areas.
Then, we identified a latent need and used it to elevate the brand equity. In a dry city like Guayaquil, parks and greenery were rare and the city was doing a lackluster job of tending to them. So we took over, sponsoring parks and playgrounds, planting vegetation in the median strips on central avenues, and making sure the brand became visible at the grassroots level. My client’s company became the face of rejuvenated green spaces and recreation. Death is death and a coffin is a coffin, but now, we also offered a reason to play, have a picnic, and make memories with family. Everybody wants to be remembered, so we created memorable experiences around a business that sold death.
With a long-term strategy, we developed short- and mid-term tactics that solved the perception of a cemetery just for the wealthy and bridged the distance for the city’s entire population. My client’s brand emerged to represent ample space, recreation, and leisure in Guayaquil. What we did, of course, is what entrepreneurs do every day. They put a trendy restaurant in a downtrodden area and the whole neighborhood flourishes. Make someplace a destination and people want to be there—desire is at the core of any good brand. I just took the same equation and applied it to a cemetery.
With a fierce entrepreneurial spirit and creative drive, Ester has built hundreds of brands of all sizes and nationalities.