By Thomas A. Parmalee

Whether it’s developing marketing for an event, a yearlong campaign, collateral material, or something else, Rolf Gutknecht finds inspiration everywhere.

The president and CEO of LA ads, a full-service marketing firm that serves the death-care market, Gutknecht (pronounced “Goot-neck,” which means “good servant” in German) leads a team that finds ideas in every media and content channel there is – from television to Facebook to TikTok to outdoor bulletins, YouTube shorts and routine chats.

“We’ve had some wonderful work come out of research conversations we’ve had with our clients’ customers and internal folks,” he said. “For me, inspiration all starts with being curious,” he said. “When you become intentional about being curious, new sources of inspiration can come pouring in. For example, I’ll hear a song and then think ‘How could I use the lyrics for current project we’re working on or something later?’”

Ideas are all around, but there’s a big, big difference between taking that inspiration and turning it into an idea that “sings like a songbird versus croaking like a frog,” he said.

So, how do funeral home owners, cemeterians and death-care suppliers craft messages that resonate and pave the way to building stronger, more successful brands? Gutknecht (pictured at top) recently shared some of his insights with

You might have the most interesting and original name in all of funeral service. What’s the story behind it?

Well, there is a story that I tell folks that speaks to how my first name has helped me maybe stand out in the world of more common names. The story goes like this: Growing up, I can’t tell you how many different versions of my name I heard on the school playground and in the classroom – Rolfe Gootnut, Rolph Goodnick, Ralph Goodneck, Rolfe Gootnech, and there’s more where that came from.  I’d come home and whine to my mom about how my name was being mispronounced by kids and teachers alike. Now being the German mom she was, she didn’t see the problem with my name, but she said something to me that I remember to today: “It’s the one thing about your name that makes you different, that will make you love it.”  Of course, I didn’t believe her at the time, but after years of therapy (not really), she was right. While it still gets hacked up and mispronounced fairly regularly, I’m ok with it because, well, how many people do you know named Rolf? Few if any, right?

Recently, you wrote an article highlighting advertisements from the Super Bowl. If you had to pick one advertisement that you saw this year that offers lessons for funeral homes – good or bad – which advertisement would that be and why?

Good question. There were a number of really good commercials this year that I enjoyed but I’d say the State Farm (Arnold Schwarzenegger– “neighbah”) spot was my favorite. State Farm understood that while they have had the same tagline/brand positioning for years, it needs to be continually presented and done so in an interesting way. The ending with Danny DeVito clearly mouthing the line: “Like a good neighbor State Farm is here” was funny given how Arnold was “struggling” saying “neighbor” throughout the spot.  I also liked it because from a marketer’s perspective for a commercial – or any general marketing/ digital/ content/ etc. advertising, for that matter – to be effective, it has to accomplish several critical feats:  It has to be different and attract attention, it has to be clear in its fundamental selling message, so the audience is not in the least bit confused on what is being advertised, the message has to be compelling, so that it influences people to want to get what’s being advertised, and it has to be memorable, so when you walk away from it, you’ll associate some level of positive feelings with the product /brand in the future  Again, this applies to all marketing/advertising efforts in any channel.

I believe you used to be based in Los Angeles, but now you live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. How are you enjoying Texas, and how has the shift affected business, if at all?

Yes, L.A. was home for a lot of years, but we’re now in the Dallas Metroplex (as they refer to it). We left for a number of reasons, with one reason being that we needed to refresh who we were, and the move has been very positive – both personally and professionally. It’s been the change of scenery that we needed, and I think it’s contributed to us even doing better work. From a business standpoint, the most obvious positive has been that we’re now in the Central Time Zone, which means I’m now not needing to get up before the rooster does to work with most of our clients who are in the Eastern/Central time zone as was occurring when I was in L.A. And travel is a bit easier. Aside from that, we’re still very much who we are and what we’re known for.

Can you share an example of a marketing campaign you’ve done in the past year for a client? What were the results, and why was it special?

OK, if I have to choose one marketing campaign (and there’s far more than one that I love for different reasons), it’s the work that we did this past year for Arlington Memorial Gardens in Cincinnati. The wonderful clients who did not want to have their marketing sound, look, or be thought in the same way as competitors. They wanted all of their marketing messaging to be interesting, which meant saying things imaginatively, originally and freshly. Full of cleverness, surprise and being bold.

The campaign focus was the need to preplan in order to take the guesswork out of your funeral with the messaging centered around the idea of “If they don’t know what to get you for your (insert: birthday, Christmas, etc.) then how will they know what to get you for your funeral?” In terms of results, while I wasn’t privy to all the numbers, we were told on more than one occasion that their at-need business had noticeably increased but maybe even more importantly, that they set a record for preneed sales last year. We’re happy to hear that the client is happy with what’s being developed to help them be successful.

Are funeral homes and cemeteries spending enough money on marketing? And if they are, do you think they are using those dollars wisely? Where do they most often go wrong?

This is the second biggest roadblock to success for funeral homes, cemeteries and B2B firms, and I say that with the utmost confidence. Now, some people are going to view my response as the typical answer given what I do, but my experience with funeral homes and cemeteries confirms that they underbudget to the point that almost nothing they do will result in them boosting their market share or visibility. Not even a little change. If you see your marketing budget as an expense, the budget will be the lowest number possible and nothing good will come as a result of spending it. It’s wasted money.  Now, if you see your marketing budget as an investment in growth (i.e., visibility, preference and sales) then you have a much better chance of succeeding – from growing both at-need and preneed business to even being in a better position to sell your firm at a good price or buy another one because you have money on hand. Or you will just have more better tomorrows for your staff and yourself.

Oh, and to answer your question about spending it wisely, it all depends on whether folks understand and are willing to think differently and step away from things that they’re doing that don’t have the same impact as other channel/media choices.  Here’s a story to this point:  I had a nice Zoom call about two months ago with a gentleman that owns a number of funeral homes in the Midwest and is the runaway leader within a large business footprint. When I asked him what motivated him to want to speak with me, he said this: “The future depends on this mindset. You either see yourself as a funeral home owner that does marketing or begin to act like a marketer that’s in the funeral profession.”  That owner gets it as do the larger firms and corporates.

We all know you do incredible work, but is there an example of funeral home marketing that you were NOT involved in that you’ve seen recently that you’d like to highlight because it impressed you?

So, Forest Lawn in the L.A. area had run a campaign (i.e., billboards, Facebook posts, etc.) that was geared to selling high-end cemetery property. If you know anything about Forest Lawn, you know that they have some of the most beautiful and well-maintained memorial parks in the country. So, they used their branding along with property beauty shots to attract wealthier folks (and families) to the idea of choosing a burial or cremation property location that reflected how they would like to be remembered. The marketing messaging revolved around the idea of “Don’t just leave your mark. Leave a landmark.” All the marketing materials showed beautiful property, views, and property options like estates. It was one of those times that I wished they were our firm’s client and we had come up with the line.

Do you have any final thoughts to share on funeral home marketing?

In the spirt of wanting to be helpful, let me offer up five “Chicken Soup for the Marketer’s Soul” thoughts:

  • The most critical part of marketing is the message. In a competitive marketplace, like the one everyone is in, the most fascinating option always wins. Like always. End of story. Don’t have a bland message or say what others could.
  • While you may not be aware of what other firms (similar to yours) are doing to enrich their fortunes, there’s a need to be open to new ideas. There are new approaches that are brimming with untapped potential to create new possibilities and produce results not thought possible.
  • Your audience doesn’t know what you really offer them or even know your name as much as you think they do. If you did any type of research on this, you’d be more than surprised at the results. Don’t let your competitor be the better-known brand.
  • Make the marketing about what the BENEFIT is to the audience. Or put another way, when a person walks into the Home Depot to buy a quarter-inch drill bit, it’s not really the drill bit that the person wants. What that person wants is a quarter-inch hole. Make the marketing about the solution to your customers’ needs and wants.
  • A timid marketer comes across in the same way as a timid person. Timidity is associated with feelings of apprehension and lack of confidence. Timid folks (and firms) are afraid of drawing attention to themselves because they feel like they don’t have anything different or fascinating to offer. Which is exactly the opposite of how a business like yours wants to be perceived. Don’t be timid.

Rolf Gutknecht is president and CEO of LA ads, a full-service marketing firm specializing in helping success-oriented funeral homes, cemeteries, manufacturers and service providers create compelling marketing messaging and develop impactful marketing programs to grow their business. Rolf can be reached at or 800-991-0625 ext. 2. Check out the LAads website by visiting www.

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