From digital legacies to a widow’s club, let’s talk about death

Tackling the taboo of death Ashley Biack and Jordan McDowell ask what talking about death could awaken within us as marketers and creatives to better serve the brands we build

Ashley Biack and Jordan McDowell

Marketing Manager and Strategy Director McCann London and McCann Manchester


This article adds to McCann London’s Atomic Soup series. A collection of sharp provocations and quirky insights written off the back of their creative brainstorm sessions, Atomic Soup. Fueled by diversity of thought and blended with cultural truths from their global network, Atomic Soup is an accelerated swarm designed to generate ideas that catch fire in culture and build brands. In this session, led by McCann London’s Marketing Manager, Ashley Biack, and McCann Manchester’s Strategy Director, Jordan McDowell, the McCann network explored death. 

A topic most of us historically shy away from, but is that changing? Is the last great taboo about to be toppled? And crucially, what could talk about death awaken within us as marketers and creatives to better serve the brands we build? 

People are increasingly likely to want to talk about death, why not brands?

According to Pure Cremation, 62% of British 18-25-year-olds have talked about death, usually with a friend or their mum, whereas 73% of over 65-year-olds say the reverse. Younger people are more likely to have proactively engaged with the subject of their mortality which suggests a gear shift for brands working in later life.

Still, whilst green shoots are apparent, the overall picture is murky because despite a growing appetite to topple this taboo, the overwhelming majority of us still can’t claim to know our loved one’s funeral wishes in detail (Biscuit Tin) and we’re still unlikely to have organized our own Will.

Brands operating in later life have never had a better opportunity to help more people prepare for the inevitable. More and more people – especially young people – are willing to contemplate the end of their lives but too often these brands shy away from their core proposition and miss a trick.

More and more people – especially young people – are willing to contemplate the end of their lives but too often these brands shy away from their core proposition and miss a trick.

Ashley Biack, Marketing Manager, McCann London and Jordan McDowell, Strategy Director, McCann Manchester

Our discussion found inspiration in ideas like Death Café, the grassroots movement where people come together to discuss death, terminal illness, and grief in a safe space. These discussions are increasingly taking place online too. One McCanner’s mother hosts an Instagram account dedicated to her continued life in recovery from cancer whilst the incredible contribution by Deborah James, otherwise known as Bowel Babe, made to destigmatising terminal illness was a poignant reminder of the power behind this subject. We also discussed WeCroak, the app experience based on the Bhutanese concept of contemplating one’s mortality five times a day to ensure ultimate happiness. The app sends a push notification at five random times throughout the day to remind users they’ll die and link them to a philosophical quote.

Sensitively executed, right-on-the-money ideas can inspire brands needing to step into the conversation. 

Life after digital death: Who manages it?

Another aspect of death that we considered is how it affects our digital presence. We post about our favourite bakeries, first day at the new job and even our never-ending thoughts on Love Island. But what happens to all the content when we’re gone? Who owns it? And who gets to decide what we do with it?

According to Oxford University, there will be more dead users on Facebook than alive ones by 2070. As our digital footprint starts younger and younger, we discussed the importance of considering our digital legacy. (Some) people write Wills for their prized possessions but not for their Instagram, leaving their loved ones to decide. Some want their loved ones’ platforms deleted altogether, while others want to revisit memories that are immortalized on their Facebook ‘On this day 5 years ago’.

Regardless, whatever the motivations of the bereaved, these are currently superseded by social media platforms’ policies. Twitter and Facebook require loved ones to share details, including information about the deceased, a copy of your ID, and a copy of the deceased’s death certificate, in order to immortalize and/or delete accounts, all of which can prove quite distressing and distracts from the grieving process.

We know that death is a difficult topic for many of us to discuss, but this growing concern around what happens to our digital presence post-mortem, presents tech brands with an opportunity to revolutionize the way in which people relate to their and their loved ones’ content. Putting the onus on active users to dictate how their pictures survive them through a simple check box upon signing up, or even through a pop-up after the next app update can make a heavy conversation less daunting. 

Not dead yet: Why are brands missing our on old(er) people?  

Research from Royal London shows 72% of those aged 55+ favour hobbies, holidays and days out over material possessions but too often feel excluded from enjoying them. A whopping 28% (Ipsos MORI) of people feel advertising makes getting older seem like a bad thing! Brands rarely lack ambition in inclusion and accessibility, but the reality is that ambition must extend further than casting in ads. If we’re to truly offer a means for older generations to engage with our brands we must consider their needs more readily. This idea heavily influenced McCann Paris and McCann London’s ‘The Non-Issue' campaign for L’Oréal, a British Vogue magazine issue for and by women over the age of 50, challenging stereotypes about ageing, born out of recognising gender-based age discrimination in fashion and beauty media.

We discussed how travel brands like Airbnb have shown older audiences a new way of travelling through their Bonnie and Clyde campaign, and how brands could take a lead from the likes of AmigoGo, an app which makes it easier for groups to arrange travel together (no more endless WhatsApp threads). We even considered how brands might facilitate easier ways for older widows to find other women their age to travel with. A Widows Worldwide Club, so to speak. Our broad conclusion was that when it comes to the inclusion of older people, actions always speak louder than words.

Our Atomic Soup session on death was a welcome and reflective opportunity to think about an area of life we don’t talk about enough. By talking about it, we’ve collectively unlocked new sources of creative inspiration and hope our insights will inspire you to unlock more. So, how will your brand help society overcome the taboo nature of death?

Guest Author

Ashley Biack and Jordan McDowell

Marketing Manager and Strategy Director McCann London and McCann Manchester


Ashley, Marketing Manager at McCann London, and Jordan, Strategy Director at McCann Manchester whose shared passion for intersectionality and dissecting taboo led to them hosting an Atomic Soup session on death - a first of its kind - where McCann's most curious minds gathered to share their perspectives on the topic and offer solutions for brands. Prior to McCann London, Ashley experienced a diverse range of roles spanning production, social media, and editorial roles at hubs like Pulse Films, Vice, and Virtue, where she's infused her passion for culture and consumer trends on campaigns for Topshop, Coca Cola and Puma. After cutting his teeth at the BBC, JWT and Co-op, Jordan joined McCann in 2021 as Strategy Director, to work with clients such as Aldi, Matalan, Microsoft and Royal London.

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