How digital is keeping the funeral industry alive and kicking

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes”. Yet, consumers don't quite enjoy talking about either. Except for maybe on Halloween, where we openly dress as the dead, the ghostly and of course, mummies and zombies. Halloween however wasn’t always a holiday with so much commercial value at stake. Initially, it was known to be a cultural practice to honour those who have passed.

And while we hesitate to talk about the dead, this Halloween, Marketing got a little curious about what we can learn from the world of undertakers.

We decided to speak to some of the prominent players in the current funeral industry. Although there is no collection of data in terms of market revenue on the funeral services industry, there are around 40 funeral companies with establishments, and approximately 200 to 300 whom are name card operators without a shop front and full time staff, said Ang Ziqian, secretary of Association of Funeral Directors (Singapore), in a statement to Marketing.

Singapore Funeral Service’s (SFS) managing director, Hoo Hung Chye who has been in the industry for over 15 years,  estimated that the industry is worth an approximate SG$200 million per annum.

He added that the industry has never been too big on marketing as death is still a sensitive topic. On top of that, the funeral services industry also faces many restrictions from the Media Development Authority in terms of paid advertising and traditional marketing, explained Hoo.

“Though we have print ads in the major newspapers, these mostly serve as fillers for the page — and just so families know where to look for the contacts when the time arises. For television and radio broadcast in Singapore, we are only allowed time slots during the unearthly hours of the day,” Hoo said, adding that it is not easy explaining funeral services to people when they are under duress.

Hoo added that nonetheless, traditional marketing is still big as its target audience still consists of Pioneers who are not IT-savvy.

Digitisation of the funeral services industry

But like any other industry, digitisation has also hit the funeral industry hard especially as younger families take charge.

“Younger families rely a lot on the internet for information,” Hoo said. As such, going forward people in general will also be more willing to discuss death and bereavement, he added.  Hoo explained that digital and social media has not only leveled the playing field and allowed families to plan ahead, but has also enabled undertakers to subtly reach out to younger consumers previously not within its radar.

But he warned that the rise of social media and use of internet to market services is also a double-edged sword. While there might now be more avenues for customers to compare price and service, it also makes customers susceptible to individual operators with no overheads due to the ease of setting up a digital presence.

As such, to unknowing customers, these websites may publish very low rates but have no real operations as they act more as referrers. He said:

As younger families have little or no experience with handling such events, they are usually only concerned about pricing and little else.

"Websites allow such operators to take advantage of consumers by promising low starting prices that eventually snowball to huge final bills laden with hidden costs,” Hoo added.

According to Singapore Casket’s senior manager Calvin Tang, the tight rulings by MDA also result in added difficulties such as challenges in promoting funeral services or products through television, road shows and other media. Singapore Casket is currently one of the biggest players in the space since the 1920s.

Tang said adding that having a digital and social media presence is something which is necessary given how most of Singaporeans are digitally-savvy.

Rise of Millennial decision makers

Agreeing to the shift of power now being in the hands of Millennials is Ang Jolie Mei, managing director at The Life Celebrant (TLC), which is a relatively new player in the space first starting in 2010. Ang herself however, is a second generation undertaker with her father Ang Yew Seng, being the founder of Ang Yew Seng Funeral Parlour which has been around since 1973.

“Because Millennials are a savvy bunch, having a digital presence is important in order to stay on the minds of consumers,” she said. She also added that having the convenience of digital and mobile has also allowed her company to better communicate with customers.

“As opposed to showing funeral products and services through print, we are able to reach customers through messaging platforms such as WhatsApp for decisions, saving them the trouble of coming down to the showroom or the parlour. This is especially crucial as time is now scarce,” she added.

She also likened the undertaking business to that of the hospitality sector, but with added challenges as customers are in a hard moment in their lives. She said:

There is no rewind button for a funeral. This is unlike in aviation or in hospitality where you can give a customer a voucher or an opportunity to come back, you only have one chance to make it right.

She added that at the end of the day, it is all about the customer experience.

Ang said that not only are funeral directors protectors of the grieving, they sometimes also act as PR professionals when managing high profile cases. This is to protect the families afflicted.

“Customer experience at the end of the day is a key driving force in this industry as funeral directors are dealing with different levels and stages of grief,” Ang said. Sharing a harrowing experience from one of the past funerals organised outside of Singapore, Ang explained how she had to manage reporters from overstepping their boundaries during a wake which involved the death of more than one family member. She said:

I had to tell photographers to delete their photographs and manage media expectations. This was to protect other family members who were grieving.

Digital aiding branding

At the end of the day, for TLC, digital has allowed it to get more members of the younger generation interested in the undertaking business as people are more exposed through the shareable nature of social media. This has allowed it to reach out to the type of employee it is looking for.

“Recently we did one of our recruitment initiatives through Facebook instead of publishing it in the papers. This is because we needed someone who is more technologically savvy and going through this medium will help better reach this target audience,” TLC’s Ang said.

Digital and social media has also allowed for more consumers to keep the brand in mind during times of need where its service is crucial.

“It has ensured greater ease of contact with families in need due to better recall of the brand,” SFS's Hoo, said.

In addition, digital and social media has allowed the service to garner positive feedback from satisfied families for sharing publicly. This has allowed SFS to interact with its followers on platforms such as Facebook and reinforce what it stands for not only in the minds of existing but also potential customers.