THE POWER OF STORYTELLING: CRIME, TRAGEDY AND DEATH AS A MARKETING STRATEGY

Written by Laura Albernaz
May 5, 2021

Crime, tragedy and death have become a multi-billion dollar topic, with industries including television and film, media, fashion and business leveraging these stories and growing consumer interests. In fact, TV shows about police officers, detectives and law enforcement accounted for almost 20% of all television shows on the air in the 2019-2020 season, outnumbering every other drama subgenre. As well, true crime series have become a growing industry, with revenue for true crime podcasts alone increasing by 53% from 2017 to 2018.[1], [2]These trends can further been seen in business performance, as organizations and estates profit off of the death of celebrities. For example, in 2020, after the death of Kobe Bryant, Nike sold out its entire inventory of Kobe Bryant merchandise and his autobiography sold more than 300,000 copies within the year, totaling a revenue of about $20 million after his death.[3] Similarly, fashion brands have been influenced by these topics for centuries, incorporating signs of crime, tragedy and death into both the material and design of garments.[4] For example, a death head ring, also known as a SS-Ehrenring, was a highly valuable gift given to select Nazis by Himmler during World War II, displaying loyalty to the Nazi party and becoming a symbol of memento mori[5], [65] As well, the fashion industry creates charismatic authority in designers, allowing them to become “mythical heroes” who are enshrined, similarly to gods or saints, due to their personal and extraordinary qualities, with this identity only becoming amplified upon their death.[6]

 

But why, as consumers, are we obsessed with crime, tragedy and death? What compels us to purchase products after hearing about the death of a person? And how can luxury fashion brands leverage these consumer behaviours to further their bottom line?

 

IT’S NOT SO SIMPLE

The answers to these questions are not so simple, with every discipline having its own perspective on why consumers are increasingly interested in, and engaged with, crime and tragedy stories. For example, criminologists would argue that people have a fixation on violence and calamity, they experience adrenaline when witnessing these deeds, and that these horrific events trigger the emotional response of fear and horror in a controlled manner.[7] Similarly, psychologists would argue that people get pleasure from other people’s problems and suffering, or that people experience a sense of relief that they were not the person to act on such feelings of aggression and impulse. They may even argue that some people may engage with crime content as a way of gaining control over fear, or that they may not even be attracted so much by the crime, but rather the events unfolding after a crime is committed, such as the court proceedings.[8] While these are more complex reasons, many would argue that this interest comes down to the content simply being informative, or that we connect with these stories because they engage the dark parts of human imagination.[9], [10]

However, at the end of the day, regardless of discipline, what is common amongst these arguments is that consumers are engaged with and addicted to the stories being told, meaning that these exercises all come down to marketing, media and strategy.

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF STORYTELLING IN BRAND MANAGEMENT

When it comes to marketing and brand management, an effective strategy comes down to four main elements – purpose, story, trust, and brand mantras. Purpose represents the job the brand does for a customer.[11] Story is the emotional connection brands make with customers to build salience.[12], [13], [14] Trust is when a brand delivers on their purpose and story.[15], [16] Finally, brand mantras are short internal phrases, typically made of three terms, which capture the essence of the brand[17] In general, as long as a brand can effectively deliver on these elements, it can expect to be successful.

However, for luxury fashion brands looking to leverage the deaths of their designers, story becomes even more critical as brand identity is key.[18] Specifically, luxury brands need to be unique among their competitors, and need to tell their own story in a real way, creating emotional involvement to build an appealing identity.[18

 

HOW HAVE LUXURY BRANDS LEVERAGED THE DEATH OF DESIGNERS? HOW DID IT AFFECT THE BOTTOM LINE?

As mentioned previously, fashion brands have been influenced by these topics for centuries, incorporating signs of crime, tragedy and death into both the material and design of garments, as well as creating charismatic authority in designers and saint-like identities and images.[4], [6] However, in luxury fashion, the designer’s stories have been commercialized, with even their deaths being glamorized to impact bottom lines. The following examples will look at specific designers’ lives and stories, with a focus on how their deaths impacted the bottom lines of both the designer’s brand and other organizations.

GIANNI VERSACE

Versace was an Italian designer most known for his glamorous lifestyle and daring fashion.[19], [20] He originally started off working for other Italian fashion designers; however in 1978 he established his own company in Milan with his brother Santo and sister Donatella, staging his own show later that year.[19], [20] He became well known throughout the 1980s and 1990s for designs that were highly sensual, sexy, colourful and flashy, including designs that incorporated sophisticated bondage gear, mesh togas, and so on.[19], [20] As his success continued, he eventually established boutiques in the United States with his designs becoming more daring and his business being extended into new markets such as costume design, handbags, jewelry, perfume, etc.[19], [20]

Gianni Versace waving to a crowd

Gianni Versace (Lionel Cironneau, Associated Press)

However, on Tuesday, July 15th, 1997, when returning to his house in Miami, Versace was shot in the head on his front steps by serial killer Andrew Cunanan, dying nearly instantly.[19], [20], [21], [22], [23] With police already searching for Cunanan in relation to four previous murders, there had been some level of media attention in various states, warning people to be on the lookout for this man, noting that he was armed and dangerous, and inevitably instilling fear in the public.[19], [20] However, after the murder of Versace, every news station in the United States and many around the world were now broadcasting his death and the investigation, making the story a “sexy tabloid story”, and leading to thousands of agents and police across the country searching for the murderer.[19], [20] Eight days later, Cunanan committed suicide using the same gun he had used to kill Versace.[19], [20], [21], [22]

Front steps with a flip flop, blood dripping and an evidence marker with the number 3

The steps where Versace was shot (Georges De Keerle, Getty Images)

Many people paid tribute to the designer, leaving flowers and creating memorials at various store locations.[19], [20] However, the Versace stores took an unusual approach to the designer’s death, closing all locations across the United States for one day, as well as having employees symbolically put a black skirt on a mannequin in the Paris boutique to pay tribute. [19], [20], [21], [22], [24] Initially, these actions would have temporarily impacted the bottom line of the Versace brand in a negative way, however as we can see, even 20 years later the brand and many organizations are profiting off of this story. For example, months after the murder, Versace’s death was honoured from December 1997 to March 1998 at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with an exhibition. Similarly, the Versace brand continues to make news and pay tribute to Gianni, including in 2017 when Donatella addressed how the brand struggled to recover from the murder, and the impact it has had on each of them, as well as in 2018 when Donatella marked the twentieth anniversary of the murder with a runway show that presented looks inspired by Gianni’s most iconic creations.[19], [20], [25], [26] Finally, television and film continue to engage consumers in this story, even without the approval of the Versace brand and family, through shows and movies such as House of Versace, American Crime Story – The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and The Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S History. [19], [27], [28]
Store window with a piece of paper reading "In memory of Gianni Versace, the store will be closed tuesday"

The store closure sign on the Versace Stores to Honour His Death (Gilles Mingasson, Getty Images)

ALEXANDER MCQUEEN

McQueen was a British designer known for groundbreaking clothes, shocking catwalk shows, and precise tailoring.[29], [30], [31] Initially in the early 1990s, McQueen worked for several other designers, which eventually led to him creating his first collection.[29], [30]However, his designs and collections became notable for their darkly romantic and violent qualities, precise sculpting and tailoring, and the inspiration they drew from history, politics, victimization and death.[29], [30] In 2000, McQueen sold his brand to the Gucci Group but retained full creative control of it, and, by 2003, he began to diversify the brand to include other products such as fragrances, menswear, and a more affordable line of clothing.[29], [30] However, on Thursday, February 11th, 2010, McQueen committed suicide by hanging, asphyxiating himself and leaving a suicide note behind.[29], [30], [31], [32], [33] This came after battling depression for several years. [29], [30], [31], [32]

Alexander McQueen wearing an all black suit

Alexander McQueen (Carlos Alvarez, Getty Images)

As with the death of Versace, many people paid tribute to McQueen at his stores, with many locations closing and some flying flags at half mast over their doorways.[31], [32] Although these temporary measures had the potential to negatively impact the company’s bottom line, McQueen’s death led to a 14-fold sales increase of his final completed spring/summer collection, Plato’s Atlantis, and Alexander McQueen stock in London almost completely sold out.[33], [36] As well, in March 2010, the brand proceeded to have McQueen’s design team finish the final collection he was working on at the time of his death, showing it to a privately selected groups of editors at Paris Fashion Week.[29], [30], [31], [34] Similarly, in 2011, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted an exhibition of McQueen’s work, which broke attendance records for a fashion exhibition and became one of the most visited shows at the museum.[29], [30], [31] This exhibition later traveled to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where it was showcased between March and August of 2015.[29], [30, [31]

Exhibit with four mannequins wearing McQueen's designs

Alexander McQueen’s Final Collection Savage Beauty (Victoria and Albert Museum London, 2015)

Additionally, authors continue to tell McQueen’s life story, including in the book Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano published by Dana Thomas in 2016.[35] Television and film continue to engage consumers with this narrative, including through the documentary McQueen released in 2018, as well as discussions in the news on how fashion can evolve and learn from the designer’s story.[36], [37] Finally, fashion continues to be inspired by him – not only by referencing his designs and vision, but also trying to find new ways of keeping the designer alive, such as using his DNA to create leather bags.[38], [39]
Display cases with McQueen's accessories

Alexander McQueen’s DNA Made Into Leather (Tina Gorjanc, Instagram)

KATE SPADE

Kate Spade was an American fashion designer and entrepreneur most known for creating colourful handbags, building both the Kate Spade New York and Frances Valentine design houses, and being one of the first designers to put her brand name on the outside of the bag.[40], [41] Initially, Spade started the Kate Spade New York brand in 1993, opening the first store in 1996 by debuting six silhouettes that were sleek in shape and used colourful palettes in a completely new way. [40], [41] As this brand continued to develop, it eventually became known for creating memorable handbags. [40], [41] However, Spade and her husband sold 56% of the brand to Neiman Marcus in 1999, and Spade officially left the brand in 2007, with the multinational luxury fashion holding company Tapestry eventually buying the brand in 2017.[40], [41]  In 2015, though, the couple re-entered the fashion industry after the birth of their daughter, launching the Frances Valentine design house that focused on handbags and shoes.[40], [41] However, on Tuesday, June 5th, 2018, Spade committed suicide, asphyxiating herself with a scarf tied to a doorknob and leaving behind a suicide note.[40], [41] This, too, came unexpectedly; despite the designer having sought help for depression and anxiety she had given no warning signs of suicidal behaviour.[40], [41]

Kate Spade wearing a yellow printed jacket with shoes and purses in the background

Kate Spade (Bebeto Matthews, AP Images)

People paid tribute to the designer by leaving flowers and messages at the New York store and sharing their grief and memories of the designer and her brands on social media. [40], [41], [42], [43] Within hours of the designer’s death, sales surged to extraordinary levels, with the sales of Kate Spade-branded items up 600% over their 30-day site average by the end of Tuesday, and remaining at 500% above the average on Wednesday.[42], [43]  Similarly, as the news broke and consumers learned more about the designer and her newer endeavours, sales of the Frances Valentine website surged on the Wednesday, with everything in the new arrivals section being sold out by Thursday morning.[40], [41], [42], [43], [44] As well, even months later, Tapestry reported a strong fourth quarter that exceeded expectations, which increased their share price by about 12%.[44]

Graphic reading "Kate Spade, the visionary of our brand, has passed. Our thoughts are with her family at this incredibly heartbreaking time. We honor all the beauty she brought into this world."

Kate Spade New York’s Tribute To The Designers Death on Social Media (Kate Spade New York, Instagram)

DOES THE TYPE OF TRAGEDY MATTER?

When it comes to the crime or tragedy consumers witness and the story that is being told, the type of crime and tragedy absolutely matters. Crimes generally fall under the categories of legal crimes or moral crimes, with legal crimes being those that are pursued by legal authorities, such as murder or corporate crimes, and moral crimes representing behaviours that violate the acceptable standards of a community. These could include, but do not always necessarily involve, legal actions such as gambling, drinking, or suicide.[45] Although both of these types of crimes and tragedies may have an impact on an organization, the stories that affect bottom lines the most – and can be leveraged as a corporate strategy – are those that don’t just entertain, but that tell stories that matter.[12], [13], [14] These stories help consumers understand themselves and the world in which they live in, including providing conflict, morals and shared values.[12], [13], [14] For example, as it can be seen with Versace, the story portrays both the legal crime of murder, as well as conflicts when it comes to safety and security within society.[12], [13], [14], [45] As well, Versace’s death helps to amplify his image as a fashion “saint”, making the story similar to hagiography.[6] Similarly, as it can be seen with McQueen and Spade, their stories inevitably portray moral crimes when it comes to religious and societal views on suicide, as well as conflicts in the fashion industry, such as the high pressure of being a designer and how the environment can be exhausting and toxic. [37],[45],  [46], [47] For instance, the fashion industry has been known to put pressure on designers, with their worth being only as good as their last collection, and with the designers never really knowing when they may be paid, leading to mental health issues and, in these cases, suicide.[37], [46], [47] Likewise, the designers’ deaths help to amplify their image as fashion “martyrs”, making their stories similar to hagiography, both memorable and critical for the fashion industry.[6] Thus, these conflicts and values connect with consumers much more deeply and help them to further understand the world, with many even able to relate. They create a much more engaging and compelling story, ultimately persuading consumers to purchase, since they have the opportunity to enshrine the designers as gods, saints and martyrs.[6], [12], [13], [14]

The importance of storytelling is also evident when thinking about the deaths of other designers. For example, Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent all died of natural causes – a heart attack, illness, and brain cancer respectively.[48], [49], [50], [51], [52], [53], [54] While, at the time, their deaths each inspired tributes, which may have slightly impacted profits that year, in the long run their deaths are no longer glamorized or discussed by the media, since they did not relate to any legal or moral crime, nor did they present any conflict, morals, or shared values that consumers could emotionally connect to.[12], [13], [14], [45] Rather, their lives and design practices, at most, may still be recounted in documentary series today, but not to the extent of the stories of designers who faced “scandalous” deaths. Additionally, their brands are still popular with consumers due to their products and brand images, which may still be inspired by the designers’ aesthetics, as well the overall image they portrayed in terms of mystical qualities and brand history, but are not specifically influenced by their deaths.[4], [6], [48], [49], [50], [51], [52], [53], [54] Thus, when the designer dies a natural death, and their death slowly becomes less publicized, their story mainly becomes a part of the academic and popular history of fashion, rather than a current part of the brand. The tragedy needs to have some legal or moral conflict and controversy to it in order for the designer as a person, rather than their ideas and abilities, to be leveraged as a long-term strategy. [12], [13], [14], [45]

Similarly, when looking at tragedy, the type of tragedy matters, as some tragedies and stories may have the opposite effect for brands. For example, the 2013 Rana Plaza Collapse in Bangladesh resulted in 1134 people dead and 2500 injured due to a structural failure that caused the building to collapse.[55], [56] This building housed many companies in various industries, including both luxury and fast fashion brands such as Joe Fresh. In this event, many of the companies who were involved in this scandal faced backlash and some level of decline in their bottom line in the short run, but these companies bounced back as the headlines on this incident receded.[55], [56], [57], [58] That said, many of these organizations did try to right this wrong, paying these workers for their fault in the accident. For example, although not a luxury brand, Joe Fresh paid victims three months’ pay, plus an undisclosed amount of long-term compensation, in addition to donating $1 million to charities that support the garment industry workers.[59], [60] However, this tragedy told a much bigger story in terms of corporate crimes relating to the health and safety of international factory workers, encouraging consumers to become more aware of who was producing their products and where they were coming from, with some consumers choosing not to purchase from these brands at all and purchasing locally instead [45], [61], [62] As well, this tragedy persuaded many organizations, including Joe Fresh, to sign on to the 2013 Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding contract that ensures the organizations a safe working environment for garment workers in Bangladesh.[60] These efforts are still discussed in the media, demonstrating how these issues remain in fashion, especially now with the Covid-19 pandemic, and how organizations need to take action in all countries, not just Bangladesh.[46], [57], [61], [62] Thus, this type of legal crime can negatively impact the long-term reputation of the brand, demonstrating how conflict can have a significant negative impact on a company’s profits, in contrast to the positive impacts of the tragedies suggested above.[12], [13], [14], [45]

collapsed Rana plaza

The Rana Plaza Building Collapse in Bangladesh (Munir Uz Zaman/Agence France-Presse, Getty Images)

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR LUXURY BRANDS?

Additionally, when stating the importance of the type of crime and tragedy, it is significant to note that, while the story of the tragedy is critical to the marketing strategy, other factors may have some influence. For example, when we consider when the designers died, we can see that Versace, McQueen and Spade died within the last 25 years, when media and internet have become more accessible, allowing for a much more significant impact. For example, if we go back to when Christian Dior died, in 1957, access to information and news was not as easy as it is today. Specifically, at this time, print media, radio and television all existed. However, the first prototype of the Internet was not created until the late 1960s, the World Wide Web was not created until 1995, and social media that we use today was not available until the 2000s.[63] Similarly, while business has been global for centuries, it would have been run quite differently then versus now, with distribution and purchasing being less accessible than it is today.[12], [13], [14], [64]  Thus, when considering tragedy as a marketing strategy, while the story itself is critical, the ability to distribute the story and products is also important.

For luxury brands, given that the houses are created from the minds and extraordinary qualities of their designers, the best recommendation is to not only acknowledge the designer’s death, but use it to further enhance their core identity, linking it to the brands’ values and connecting with consumers on an emotional level.[6],[12], [13], [14], [18] For example, the Versace brand has done well to commemorate Gianni Versace’s death, by creating products that are inspired by his aesthetic and honouring the anniversary of the event.[19], [20], [25],  [26]  However, the brand could leverage his death and the associated legal conflicts to enhance and instill the company’s values and address global social issues.[12], [13], [14], [18], [45] For example, it could use the tragedy to address key issues such as human safety and security, and even potentially gun violence and gun control in the US. This would allow the brand to connect with consumers emotionally, creating points-of-difference and a unique identity that no other luxury brand could truly leverage.[12], [13], [14], [18] As well, this would be highly relevant and successful given the current trends and concerns seen in the US when it comes to safety as a social issue. Similarly, the Alexander McQueen, Kate Spade and Frances Valentine brands have acknowledged the designers’ mental health issues, but have not run with the idea of using their death as part of their strategies.[29], [30], [40], [41] These brands could use the moral conflict of their deaths as an opportunity to promote company values around the health and well-being of their employees, as well as global, social issues surrounding mental health and stigma, connecting emotionally with many consumers around the world who either suffer with mental health issues themselves or know someone who does.[12], [13], [14], [18], [45] This, too, would create points-of-difference for the brands, as well as unique identities. This would be a highly relevant and successful strategy, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled pressures on designers and many consumers around the world, resulting in many people struggling with mental health issues now more than ever. [18], [37], [45],  [46], [47] Additionally, in all three examples, not only would these strategies maintain, leverage and amplify the hagiological aspects of the story that originally persuaded consumers to purchase and created spikes in demand, but it would also allow the brands to promote positive change within the societies they operate in, paying tribute to the designers, and ensuring that their deaths have broader meaning.[6]

Thus, luxury brands need to not only acknowledge their designers’ deaths and let the glamorization of these events impact their profits in the short run, but rather, they need to incorporate their deaths into their story and main marketing strategies. When luxury brands are faced with the death of their leader, they first need to consider the designer’s hagiological identity, how this identity impacts the organization and its story, as well as how the death influences consumer behaviour. Next, the brands needs to consider if the tragedy involves legal or moral conflicts, or if it may relate back to core brand values that can be incorporated into their strategy moving forward. Finally, the brands need to understand which conflicts and trends may be relevant in both the fashion industry and the world in general, understand how these events impact consumer behaviour, and determine if the death of the designer may relate to them in any way. By understanding these elements, a luxury brand can truly determine the best way to handle the death of the designer, ensuring not only long-term profit but also that they are in control of the story, and that not only organizations in the arts, television, film and media industry are making money off of the designer’s death. As such, the brands can not only pay tribute to the designers, but can create positive change and meaning from their deaths, ensuring that the designer is kept alive beyond their natural human form in terms of DNA and ideas, ultimately ensuring their death was not just another tragedy.

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