Death and discounts are coming together this Black Friday with a promotion from on direct-to-consumer funeral caskets.
Titan Casket, the self-proclaimed "Warby Parker of the funeral industry," is offering customers $50 off if they pre-purchase a casket, which can run between roughly $500 to $4000. The company touted this "first-of-its-kind deal" as a way for customers to lock in the price of a casket today and potentially save their families thousands of dollars in the future.
COO Joshua Siegel said the promotion is a test of the company's long-term effort to get consumers to think about and plan for their deaths or a family member's death well in advance of that sad, but inevitable, moment.
Targeted discounts are just one part of this strategy. Getting a Titan casket featured in the music video for Taylor Swift's single Anti-Hero is another.
Behind the footage of Swift climbing out of a Titan casket, however, the company is anchoring its marketing around a message of consumer rights.
"Most families in the U.S. only go to a funeral home when they suffer a loss, and they end up not getting what they want and spending too much money," he said. "Unlike other major purchases, they don't shop around, but we think it doesn't have to be this way."
As Siegel explained, the casket industry is dominated by just two firms, Matthews International and the Batesville Casket Company, both of which only sell through funeral homes.
However, consumers do have options. The Federal Trade Commission passed a regulation back in 1984 called the Funeral Rule that requires funeral homes to accept any casket bought outside of their business. In addition, the agency voted in October to expand the rule to require funeral homes to post prices online.
This opens the door to direct-to-consumer brands such as Titan, but first they have to get consumers on board with being marketed to about death.
"A casket is something you either need or you don't, and if you don't need it, you don't want to be seeing caskets marketed to you," Siegel said. "If someone sees our ads on Facebook for the first time, the joke they often make is, 'Why is this on my timeline? Does the algorithm know something that I don't?'"
To combat this kind of morbid speculation, Titan has so far emphasized the educational aspect of its marketing. Going forward, the challenge for the company is getting customers to actually buy caskets ahead of time.
"The Taylor Swift [video] drove a ton of traffic, but it didn't necessarily drive a bunch of conversions," said Andrew Oved, managing partner at Reformation Partners, which recently invested $3.5 million in Titan. "However, the sense is that long-term a lot of visitors that came to the website will end up purchasing from Titan."
The company launched its "Pre-Plan-Your-Casket" program earlier this month to make pre-purchases possible. The way it works is customers make the purchase, lock down the price, and then their funds are placed in a third-party trust until they actually need the casket.
"Consumers do not have to worry that we'll go out of business or that we'll have access to their funds," said Siegel. "They are fully protected."
The setup does present some risks to the business, however, as the trust invests customers' money so that it can keep up with inflation.
"We're, of course, taking on the risk that investment will do better than inflation or at least keep up with inflation, but it's something we can manage," he said, adding that the trust will pursue a "conservative strategy that's in line with inflation and not too much above or below that."
There are precedents for this kind of model, as well state-by-state regulations for how the trusts should be managed. There are also precedents for things going awry.
"This sounds like a pre-need option, which has been a common practice in the funeral industry for decades," said Sarah Chavez, the director of the Order of the Good Death, a nonprofit focused on improving the circumstances of death.
She noted that the organization cautions people against purchasing pre-need plans,"since there are associated risks if the company goes out of business without a back up plan to protect consumers."
This happened recently in the United Kingdom with the collapse of a company called Safe Hands, which funneled customer funds to offshore tax havens.
Titan customers would be protected from its own theoretical bankruptcy because a third-party trust has their funds. But that third party, Funeral Services Inc., could also go bankrupt — though it's been around for decades.
Oved pointed out that there are other precedents for pre-purchasing in the funeral business, so it's not like Titan is coming out of left field.
"Most people who are getting buried in a cemetery do purchase their plots prior to passing away, so there are some concrete examples of consumers doing this in advance," he said. "It certainly is a challenge for the business, but it's not insurmountable by any means."
The bigger challenge, he added, is for Titan to maintain a positive relationship with its customers over many years and even decades, because ideally that's how far ahead of time they'll be making their purchase.
"Titan genuinely has to have unbelievable customer service, unbelievable product, and unbelievable branding and storytelling, and it needs to be authentic because they are playing an extremely long game," he said. "It's not as if they can put up pretty pictures and spend money on Facebook and acquire customers."
UPDATED: Joshua Siegel is the COO of Titan Casket not the CEO as was written in a earlier version.