memorial day marketingWhat does Memorial Day mean to you?

  • The start of summer?
  • Memorial Day specials and sales?
  • A tribute to fallen soldiers?

Memorial Day is a big holiday, but often not for the reason it was originally intended.

And that makes Memorial Day marketing a challenge for communicators.

Is Memorial Day “Happy?”

Coming from a military family, messaging around Memorial Day is something I’m very sensitive to.

“Happy Memorial Day,” for example, is a disrespectful phrase.

It’s not a “happy” day.

It’s not like the Fourth of July or someone’s birthday.

Memorial Day is a time for humble and solemn reminders of the sacrifices of many men, women, and their families, for our country and our freedoms.

Because I saw the “Happy Memorial Day” greeting consistently this year, it made me think about the organizations that handle this holiday well, and those that don’t.

It also made me wonder how veterans and active duty service members, the people who matter most in concerns around Memorial Day, felt about the holiday.

Let’s take a look at how to best handle Memorial Day communications.

And then you can tuck it away for next year when you plan things for your clients or organization.

(Many of these same rules apply for Veteran’s Day.)

The best lessons are examples, so let’s start by looking at companies that do Memorial Day exceptionally well.

Chick-Fil-A Shows Respect in a Significant Way

Dillan Thompson, a vet who was deployed to Kandahar Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, and founder of Ugly Man Buys Houses, encountered the Chick-Fil-A tribute this Memorial Day:

During this past Memorial Day, my girlfriend and I went to Chick-Fil-A to grab lunch before running our errands. When we walked into the restaurant, the first thing I saw walking in was a table set up for the missing soldier. I was blown away. I have never seen that memorial set up anywhere other than a military dining facility.  To be honest I was not even thinking about how it was Memorial Day until I walked in there. I am happy that Chick-Fil-A smacked me in the face to make me think of my fallen brothers and sisters. I feel that this is an easy and inexpensive memorial every major store should have set up on this holiday.

Lowe’s Honors the True Meaning of Memorial Day

Nationwide, Lowe’s reserved and decorated a parking spot in honor of fallen military members.

Each store was also encouraged to do something to honor the day and the men and women who sacrificed for our country.

You can see the many wonderful tributes HERE.

Memorial Day Marketing: Dos and Don'ts for Communicators

The USAA Poppy Wall

Not a surprise that USAA would nail Memorial Day.

Full disclosure, I’m a USAA member and think they are the when it comes to many things, their communications included.

Memorial Day Marketing Fails

When it comes to Memorial Day marketing fails, I’m just going to leave this right here as the example of all examples of what not to do.

Thanks, Cinnabon!

Memorial Day Marketing: Dos and Don'ts for Communicators


What Military Members Have to Say

I wanted to hear how military members felt about Memorial Day marketing.

So, of course, I went to my very favorite one first: Papa Joe Petrolino (the original #PetroPower):

Most people or organizations who say “Happy Memorial Day” also include a comment about why we remember and celebrate it. Many organizations such as restaurants or retailers also have specials just for veterans as they do on Veterans Day. As to sales or promotional stuff, it’s just a sale and they use any excuse. What is especially good now, as opposed to when Vietnam veterans came home, is that the military are respected and those physically or emotionally damaged are taken care of.

Word Matter

My friend, Air Force (Reserves) Captain Annely Omega noticed a lot of inappropriate messaging around the day:

For the most part, I find anything that states “Happy Memorial Day” disrespectful, because it completely ignores what the day is centered around.

I saw other ads over the weekend with words like, “Are you ready for your Memorial Day Party?!” and “Time to Celebrate!” While I have no issue with firing up the grill and spending time with loved ones/enjoying the day off, I feel there should AT LEAST be some sort of acknowledgment for our Fallen Heroes.

I understand that Memorial Day is a holiday and the unofficial start to Summer, therefore, businesses will take that opportunity to promote sales. That’s OK from my perspective, when it’s worded like “Memorial Day Sale” compared to “Happy Memorial Day!” followed by whatever deal/promo they have going on.

On the other side of the coin, I know as a consumer, I’m usually waiting for certain sales during holidays.
Most of the organizations I saw doing this well seemed to have a large veteran client base such as USAA, MilitaryByOwner (a site where military members can list their properties for sale), VA News, and even smaller vet owned businesses like Born Primitive, and SoldierFit (bootcamp style gym). Western Bagel sent out an email with an image with the flag and message saying “Memorial Day, Honoring All Who Served” and then proceeded with their message about shipping and latest deal on a combo pack, etc., which I was fine with. Others mentioned their promos and then included a message that a portion of those sales would be donated to military charities.
I think for the most part, the promotions are pretty neutral, minus the few that put “Happy Memorial Day!” at the forefront. To me, that shows a lack of awareness and empathy towards what the day actually signifies.

The Freedom and Responsibility

I love Brian Taylor’s take on freedom and the right to expression:

I am a veteran of the U.S. Army and served as an MP during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2004). My family’s military service goes back three generations to WWII. Fortunately and thankfully, we did not loose any one during wartime.  But as you may know, over an estimated 1,300,000 service members have died in conflict since our founding. As a veteran who fought to maintain the rights of citizens of our country, let me be clear that each individual has a right to expression and I include businesses in that as well.

However, I do believe it does not contribute to the meaning of Memorial Day when it is viewed in the perspective of “Happy Memorial Day”.  It should be a time of humbleness that men and women have paid the ultimate price of freedom, so that we can be thankful that we can participate in the promotions, sales on this day.

I am the founder of, and this past Memorial Day we posted a photo of the flag being folded at a veteran’s funeral and simply extended our prayers and gratitude to the families of those lost and as a reminder for others to do the same.  We did not post promoting any products or sales. That is simply how we chose to recognize it. Others should have the freedom to choose how they will recognize it.

Don’t Be Tone-Deaf

Staff Sergeant Chae Reid, U.S. Air Force and owner of Moving Rhythms, wants companies to be aware of what their Memorial Day marketing messaging means to military members:

Before I joined the Air Force in 2013, Memorial Day was just another day off. However, the second I donned a uniform and raised my right hand, my perspective changed. Memorial Day means something different when you know people who have lost a loved one or friend in war. When you learn that your chow hall or dormitory is named after someone who was killed in combat at 19 years old, it’s different. Until someone wears a uniform, they won’t get it. But how can we possibly expect them to unless we educate them?

When I see “Happy Memorial Day”, it does make me cringe a little, because it sounds insensitive and tone-deaf. I know the person didn’t mean it that way, but I still wish they’d just say, “Enjoy the long weekend” or something more general. But you know what? I’m glad people enjoy their day off. We fight to defend freedom, so why should I be upset that they’re exercising it? This past Memorial Day, many huge corporations like Target and Chick-Fil-A did not post on social media. This is smart move because they realize that sometimes, silence is golden. And it keeps them from possibly being labeled as thoughtless. Other companies should do the same, because this is a trend that’s actually worth copying!

A Sale is a Sale

Tyler Browne is a former Marine Corps machine gunner, who served from 2003  to 2007 doing two tours, one to Fallujah and one to Afghanistan.

He thinks sales and promotions that are part of Memorial Day marketing just make sense due to timing:

I feel veterans are looking for things to be outraged about and this may be one of them. A vocal minority probably think that it is in poor taste to have sales on Memorial Day. However, among my circle of veteran friends, we don’t really care. It’s not like the sales are on par with Black Friday or Cyber Monday. Retailers are always having sales and Memorial Day is just another time of the season to do so. Memorial Day also serves much like the start of summer. There are also Labor Day sales at the start of Fall. It is more a timing thing than anything else in my opinion. I do run an online store (, but do not have Memorial Day Sales, but would do so if we had more resources to.

People Mean Well

Retired Marine, Jaynine Howard wants to give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to Memorial Day marketing:

As a veteran and business owner, it does not bother me to see a sale. I actually look forward to the sales. It is one way the store/business is saying “thank you” to the veteran and his/her family by allowing them to purchase items at a discount. Lowe’s Home Improvement actually had veteran parking space blocked off with flowers and plants and a sign honoring veterans on Memorial Day.

As far as someone saying “Happy Memorial Day”, I don’t get upset. At least the person is acknowledging the day and my service. I’m guessing they think I probably know someone who gave their life for our country.

In general, people mean well. Veterans are use to sales around all holiday weekends, and Memorial Day is another day to capture business and thank a veteran.

A Brand’s Responsibility

Dillan Thompson wants companies to use their Memorial Day marketing platforms to help Americans remember the reason for the holiday:

As a vet who was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, I view Memorial day as a day to remember the men and women who have given everything for what we have today. That being said, I do not get offended nor do I mind that companies are using Memorial Day as a day to have sales and market their products. I personally take advantage of these types of sales for large purchases. Companies that participate in large Memorial Day Sales have the opportunity to help fellow Americans to remember who has fallen and unfortunately a majority of companies do not.

Critical Thinking is Key for Memorial Day Marketing Success

Critical thinking stops us from sinking! Repeat after me. Critical thinking stops us from sinking!

In the end, most brands mean well, but just don’t full think about the implications of their Memorial Day marketing choices.

Ignite Social Media has a nice list of dos and don’ts, but overall I’d say to stop, drop, and think.

If you aren’t a military member or don’t have a family member who is one, it’s natural to not consider the level of tone deafness your marketing messages might display.

So take the time to ask someone who does have a better understanding.

Image by Keturah Moller from Pixabay

Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is chief marketing officer for Spin Sucks, an integrated marketing communications firm that provides strategic counsel and professional development for in-house and agency communications teams. She is a weekly contributor for their award-winning blog of the same name. Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

View all posts by Laura Petrolino