Updated: Mar 16
Back in 2013, news spread throughout the UK that our beef had been spiked with horse. Whilst it was cheaper, leaner, and a relatively premium cut of meat, the public wasn’t best pleased to find they’d been eating black beauty bolognese every night.
Iceland, the company at fault, was sent into a downward PR spiral - one they’re still reminded of to this day. Yet, others were quick to capitalise on the faux-pas - and not who you might think.
Enter: Mini’s John Cooper Works.
The advert has remained as one of the greatest reactive marketing examples there has ever been. Mini have no relation to Iceland (or even food for that matter), but jumped on the noise to create a humorous, highly viral advert in order to promote one of their own completely different products.
The advert was shown in newspapers and online, meaning that you couldn’t really miss it, and soon enough it became one of the talking points of the UK - increasing Mini’s brand awareness, and also, getting more people on board with the brand.
More recently, Pepsi had their own go amidst the increasing anger surrounding police brutality in the States, and, well, received a noticeably different reaction.
The advert opens to a Pepsi can being popped open before switching to a cellist on a rooftop. A crowd soon fills the screen holding various banners showing peace signs and wearing the brand’s red and blue colours. Kendell Jenner appears out of nowhere; glammed to the max and in full make-up.
The shot switches to another musician in an empty room, taking a sip out of another Pepsi can before heading onto a balcony to watch the protest from the streets. Back to people drinking Pepsi (now bottled) in a restaurant next to the crowd. A random photographer gets angry and throws some pictures about the room. She notices the commotion and runs outside with her camera. Dancing and music fills your senses right before Kylie makes eyes at the cute cellist from before, takes off her wig, and wipes away her lipstick for literally no reason, and understandably, annoying the make-up artists she brushes past on her way out.
Police are there now, along with some LGBTQ+ individuals, as Jenner saunters through the crowd in absolute confusion. She grabs what seems like the 30th Pepsi shown in the ad, fists bumps a random guy, and gives the Pepsi to a rather dashing young Policeman. The Policemen takes a sip, the crowd goes wild, and people start hugging one another as Pepsi finally end racial discrimination in just 3 minutes.
“Live Bolder” ends the ad, and everyone loved it. Thanks to Pepsi, we now live in a world without war, without pain, and without racial profiling. Wink wink, nudge nudge, cough cough.
The advert received heavy, heavy backlash from customers and other businesses criticizing the company for trying to profit off other people’s suffering.
Pepsi said: “This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony. We think that’s an important message to convey.”
It is, but that’s not what they did. Posts showing police protests, street skirmishes, and beatings saying “So...I guess my country needs more than a #Pepsi” and “Kendall, please! Give him a Pepsi” whilst calling for boycotts quickly flooded social media. It definitely unified people similar to the Mini ad, but against the company, not with it.
There are several reasons why the ad failed - it was insensitive, monetised a serious social issue, and failed to take a stand. Pepsi didn’t really sit on either side of the fence - they showed happy-clappy people being even more happy-clappy because they had a fizzy drink and some music. It didn’t show the dark side of the issue, it didn’t say that Pepsi was against anything, and used a ridiculously wealthy public figure for an issue facing the less fortunate and discriminated.
All in all, it was a disaster.
The issue with Pepsi’s adverts didn’t lie in the fact that they touched on a heavy subject, it was the fact they were covering it up with their own brand. Take a look at Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ads. All they did was put Kaepernick’s face in black and white behind text reading “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Kaepernick famously knelt during the national anthem of an NFL game due to his frustrations with police brutality - a move which many other NFL players, fans, and people around the world commended, but also saw him out of a job for a year.
Kaepernick tweeted the image with the phrase followed by the famous #JustDoIt slogan. Nike then stated they would be releasing more images of similar activists and socially-conscious figures as well as Kaepernick’s new line of apparel whilst donating to his ‘Know Your Rights’ campaign.
Nike didn’t hesitate to get on board with Kaepernick’s cause despite the controversy behind it. They took a side, committed to it, and didn’t make it about them. For heavy subjects, reactive marketing isn’t about slapping your name over a cause - it’s about trying to help. By trying to help, you give your brand personality and show boldness, but by covering it with your logo, colours, or name, you make it self-centred and degrade the message.
For light-hearted content, feel free to go brand forward. Mini’s car is smack-bang in the middle of their advert, and then the text acts as back up. People don’t mind you making it about your brand if they’re not as emotionally affected by the content you’re reacting to. It’s all about judging the mood.
The reaction to Nike’s message wasn’t all positive. Some people cut the Nike logo off their t-shirts, socks, and shorts whilst others burned their shoes, causing Nike’s stock price to fall more than two per cent. However, so did Adidas’, their main competitor.
Yet, the issues they faced were in line with their message: believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. Nike stuck to their guns despite the negativity because they believed in the message.
Eventually, Nike’s revenues increased by 10% year-on-year to $9.9bn (£7.5bn), shares came back, and profits were bumped by more than 15%. The short term backlash associated with the advert was more than made up for by the brand loyalty they created, new customers they created, and most importantly, sales. Now, Nike is known as a moral brand and people feel more passionate about purchasing their products as they feel their values align with that of the company.
Similar issues can be seen with M&S’ recent LGBT sandwiches. Adding guacamole to the BLT, M&S made the LGBT which came in multicoloured packaging in support of Pride, but with no actual benefits for LGBTQ+ individuals.
“Calling all LGBTs! Get yourself down to @marksandspencer and help yourself to a free gay sandwich! No need to pay babe, just walk in and take this trash off the shelves. Not sure whether this offer applies to Allies too” stated one Tweet.
The sandwich was £3 - none of which went toward any LGBTQ+ charity. The company did then state that £10,000 would be donated to the Albert Kennedy Trust, the national LGBTQ+ Youth Homelessness charity organisation, alongside €1000 to BeLonG To Youth Services, which works with LGBTI+ young people in Ireland, but it wasn’t enough.
Opinions were divided (at least more so than with Pepsi), as some people praised the brand for normalising the pro-LGBTQ+ agenda, whilst others accused them of profiting off it. M&S ran into issues the year before with their “rainbow veg” sandwich to celebrate pride, but didn’t seem to take the criticism on board.
The campaign’s main issue is with its triviality. Whereas Nike were bold and brave with simple, minimalistic posters placing the centre of focus on the issue and the activist, M&S rebranded one of their own products to sell it back to the community they were trying to support, and made the slogan a pun by simply adding in guacamole - an already trivialised ingredient due to its popularity among millennials.
Reactive marketing is a minefield. If you run straight through without a plan, you’ll eventually hit a trigger and then everything will blow up in your face. However, if you do your research, get it checked by others, and make sure you’re not touching any nerves, then it can be an extremely effective way to boost virality, create brand exposure, and reach cold audiences previously out of reach.
For emotional reactive marketing, it also helps to have a link. Kaepernick was an athlete competing in the NFL - two things that Nike were already heavily involved in. Pepsi had no link to Kendell Jenner, an individual who was already known for being flimsy with the brands she promotes, and Jenner had no link to the police riots. In fact, she was as distant from them as you can possibly get. Had they used an activist, community member, or anyone with a link to the cause, the reaction may have been different.
With M&S, had they given out the sandwiches for free at Pride marches in order to directly help those involved with the cause, or donated 100% of the sandwich profits to the LGBTQ+ charities they were donating too, then they might have been praised for their actions.
Whilst it can be easy to think you need to rush before the commotion dies down, it’s better to fully think things through - especially if it’s potentially risky. For light-hearted issues, content that doesn’t ‘hit the mark’ isn’t damaging, just underwhelming. For heavier subjects, content with cracks can quickly break, and bring your brand down with it.
One of the best cases of reactive marketing came from Volvo.
Every time the Superbowl rolls around, car companies pay millions to have their advert in one of the breaks. That year Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Nissan, Fiat, Toyota, and Kia spent around $60 million total to have their cars shown during the event.
Volvo spread the word that you could win a brand new car by simply tweeting the hashtag #VolvoContest every time you saw a car advert during the game. 2,000 tweets using the hashtag were recorded every minute and totalled over 55,000 before the end as well as becoming a trending topic on Twitter, earning the brand $200 million in media impressions as well as a 70% sales increase on their new model.
In order to create impactful, positive change for your business with reactive marketing, remember these things:
Strike while the iron’s hot - there’s no point reacting to a piece of news that’s come and gone. You need to post while it’s still fresh and top of mind.
Don’t rush - if you’re considering reactionary marketing to a heavy issue, take your time to smooth out the kinks. You don’t want to redirect the fire back on yourself.
Plan Ahead - sometimes there’s news you know is going to happen. For example, if there’s a big sports final ahead, then one team has to lose. By creating ads in the case of each scenario, you’ve got something loaded up. Hair brand Aussie and breakfast cereal Weetabix did this well with the inevitable announcement of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.
Make it entertaining - if you’re going to post something, make sure it’s going to have a reaction. Reactive marketing may be labelled after your reaction to a news item, but the main focus should be placed in the reaction from the viewers.
Don’t Overdo It - Nobody likes a brand that’s constantly commenting and adding their two cents. Save it up for the stuff that matters or when you can make some real traction. As Gary Venychuck would say, get in your jabs often, and wait for the perfect moment to strike with the right hook.