Nothing provokes discussion and debate quite like a news event, so it’s perhaps no surprise that brands have become keen to get involved in these discussions. This is often where the action is happening and the subjects that people are actively searching for online. Getting involved in the conversation around news events therefore offers brands a valuable opportunity to stay visible while attention is focused elsewhere. At the same time, it’s a chance to share their personality, values and beliefs with both existing and prospective customers and reinforce people’s view of what they stand for.

This Blue Paper looks at how organisations have sought to join in with the mass of chatter about topical issues, why they are doing this and the results it has produced for them.


The nature of the relationship between brands and their customers has changed dramatically in recent years. Whereas people were once largely and happily ignorant of how organisations worked behind the scenes, today they want to know a lot more. Specifically, they want the brands they transact with to display a clear set of values and beliefs. As a result, more and more firms are tying marketing activities into current events, with everything from planned campaigns based around scheduled occasions to tweets responding to breaking news events.

According to figures from MediaCom, two-thirds of people expect brands to give back to society in some way, while 8 in 10 feel brands should minimise their environmental impact. The research also showed that 4 in 10 have gone as far stopping using certain brands because of their behaviour, with issues such as animal testing and not paying tax proving particularly contentious.[1]

Brands are therefore under strong pressure to demonstrate a clarity of purpose and show their target audience what they care about. Engaging with news events is a good way to do this, as it’s an easy way to prove they have an outward-looking view and aren’t afraid to speak up on certain issues.

At the same time, the emergence of social media has profoundly transformed how brands interact with their customers. Instead of generic mass marketing, people now expect instant two-way dialogue with companies, and that has fed an expectation for brands to present a sense of personality to their customers. A recent study by Sprout Social found that 86% of consumers expect brands to be honest in their social posts, while 83% want them to be friendly. 78%, meanwhile, expect companies to helpful online, and 72% want them to be funny. By contrast, just 33% said they want to see critical posts from brands on social media, while only 39% want them to be politically correct. This has served as a further motivation for companies to take part in discussions around current affairs, as these debates let them show the personality traits they wish to convey.[2] They can be serious at times and silly at others, depending on what seems appropriate or what it is they are trying to achieve.

Another benefit of engaging with the news is that it lessens the chances of appearing passe or out of touch. This approach lets brands demonstrate they are up-to-date, relevant and actively keeping up with what’s happening around them. In saturated sectors, it’s no longer enough to be known purely for offering high-quality products and services. By showing immediacy, relevancy, personality and a set of values, brands can stand out over and above their rivals in competitive markets – and it’s this that can ultimately determine where a person chooses to spend their money.


Case studies

There are many instances of when brands have successfully aligned their marketing to specific events and news stories. Here are a few examples…

In 2015, the UK saw its first full solar eclipse for 16 years, a celestial event that generated much excitement among the media and the public. Oreo chose to capitalise on the buzz by working with the Sun newspaper to offer its own unique spin on the occasion. On the day of the eclipse, each copy of the paper came with a translucent cover wrap depicting a giant Oreo blocking out the sun. This was supported with a real-time Oreo eclipse online and on digital outdoor signs, using live data from the Royal Astronomical Society to recreate the exact timings and trajectory of the sun and moon across the country.[3]

The campaign was seen by 20 million people and widely reported in the mass media. Furthermore, Sun readers were found to be 17% more likely to buy Oreos following the campaign, which proved to be widely remembered by readers of all newspapers. Mondelez International, who owns the Oreo brand, later stated that it wasn’t about Oreo ‘taking ownership’ of the event. Instead, Mondelez said it was ‘a demonstration of how a brand can use marketing to elicit a response and add colour and enjoyment to a national event by going beyond small-scale tactics and giving its marketing national scale too.’ [4]

Ed Balls Day
In April 2011, then-Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls accidentally tweeted his own name when he was trying to search for it on Twitter. The post ended up being retweeted thousands of times and a year later, Twitter users came up with all sorts of weird and hilarious ways to recall the famous gaffe. Incredibly, this has become an annual event and Ed Balls Day (28th April) is now a guaranteed source of amusement online every year.

It’s no wonder then that brands have become increasingly keen to join in with the fun, just as they do with April Fool’s Day. Virgin Atlantic, for instance, posted a mock-up image on Twitter of a new plane decked out with the image of Ed Balls wearing a Union flag cape and claimed to have taken delivery of its new ‘7-Ed-7’. The Royal Albert Hall, meanwhile, shared an image of a gathered crowd in the venue waving Union flags and stated: ‘However you’re celebrating this year, we’d like to wish every single one of you a happy and healthy Ed Balls Day.’ Both tweets came with the hashtag #EdBallsDay, guaranteeing they’d show up in searches on Twitter, and enabling people to see that brands you wouldn’t necessarily associate with parody and humour were willing to show a lighter side.[5]

Political events
The very nature of politics makes it a divisive subject that is usually avoided by marketing. But when election fever strikes the country, there are ways that brands can acknowledge what is going on without appearing overtly political. Ryanair managed this in the run-up to the 2015 general election, specifically on the day after the BBC’s opposition leaders debate, with a print ad described by the Guardian as ‘cheeky’. The ad depicted Labour’s Ed Miliband through a plane window, facing the left accompanied by the words ‘Left-Wing Views’. The same ad showed UKIP’s Nigel Farage looking through a right-facing window, accompanied by the words ‘Right-Wing Views’. The ad was topped off with the caption ‘With allocated seating, there’s no debate’. It was a topical way of relating its own services to what was already being widely discussed by the British public, but in a playful and satirical manner. Bird’s Eye, meanwhile, hired impressionist Rory Bremner to star in videos in which he mashes up notable political speeches. The #StirringSpeeches campaign was designed to promote the brand’s new stir-cooked range, but again proved a witty way of relating what it does to seemingly unconnected events taking place on a larger scale.[6]

International Women’s Day
This global event commemorates the progress that has been made in furthering women’s rights over the years and highlights the work that still needs to be done. It has therefore proved an ideal occasion for brands to latch onto in order to demonstrate their progressive attitudes and sense of social justice. Procter & Gamble (P&G), for example, marked this year’s International Women’s Day by launching the corporate #WeSeeEqual campaign across social media. The brand released online videos demonstrating how both males and females can overcome gender stereotypes. While these highlighted its consumer-facing brands such as Always, P&G’s #WeSeeEqual was significant in that it showcased the entire company’s desire to expose and tackle gender bias. It also fitted into previous narratives it had put forward, as P&G brands such as Fairy and Pantene had focused on the issue of gender equality in other marketing drives in recent years. As a result, it seemed timely, sincere and authentic for the parent company to be directly addressing the subject on International Women’s Day. Stefan Felitoza, Marketing Director for northern Europe at P&G, said: ‘We are leveraging our insights to uncover gender bias and taking actions to spark conversations that motivate change. We believe it is our responsibility to be a good corporate citizen.’ [7]


How you can link marketing to future occasions

Mine customer data
Linking marketing to a planned news event only works if you have a clear idea of what you wish to achieve. Is the aim to show your support for a serious social issue? Or are you aiming to be seen as quirky, amusing and off-the-wall? The answer depends largely on the nature of your audience, which means you need insights into what interests and motivates them. Use social media, market research, CRM software and other datasets to find out what core issues matter to your target market and what they are actively talking about – and where they are talking about it. Once you have these insights, you can see how these overlap with your brand purpose and whether you can add to the discussion in a meaningful and authentic way that resonates.

Identify relevant scheduled occasions
Once you’ve set your objectives, get together a calendar of forthcoming national and global events that will work for your business and your audience. There are many days of interest calendars online that can easily point you towards occasions that might be worth basing marketing material around. Furthermore, many of your competitors might already be linking their marketing with specific dates and occasions that are generating a buzz among your target audience. When you have singled out a few good options, you are then in a position to start brainstorming exactly how you plan to associate your brand with them, with plenty of time to prepare an effective campaign before the date comes around. Remember to always bear your original criteria in mind throughout the creative process, so you don’t run the risk of straying too far away from what you want to accomplish.

Monitor breaking news
While it’s well worth planning marketing drives around scheduled occasions taking place in the future, reacting spontaneously to breaking news stories can also be valuable. As we said earlier, it’s important to bear your brand purpose in mind and understand the issues your target audience care about. With this in mind, actively seek out stories that align with these areas, so you can either draw attention to developments people might not know about or offer an opinion on a topic that is already provoking strong debate. This can be done easily by setting up Google alerts on certain keywords, keeping up what leading influencers are talking about on social media and carrying out a social listening exercise to see what topics are being discussed by your target audience online.

At the same time, look out for those seemingly unrelated stories that have gone viral and see if you can put a unique spin on it. While a link between a hotly-discussed news story and your brand might not always be immediately obvious, creative marketers can often make the connection, perhaps with a bit of wordplay and punning. People are just as likely to be talking about breaking news and quirky, unusual stories as they are about scheduled events, so it’s well worth being seen in this discussion space. This is particularly true for brands that offer products and services that might sometimes seem quite dry and underwhelming, but still wish to project a bit of personality.

Use popular hashtags
When you are sharing images, videos, gifs or even just a few words relating to current news events online, boost their visibility by using popular hashtags at the same time, Other commentators, from members of the public to influential thought leaders and brands, will be using the same hashtags, so there’s a good chance your contribution to the debate will show up when people are searching online. This boosts the visibility of your brand and could lead to you becoming aligned with other prominent commentators in people’s minds. That’s one reason why you need to be very careful about which news stories you focus on, as you want to be in with reputable company, which leads us on to our next point…

Think how it will be perceived
The line between basing marketing around news events and appearing opportunistic can sometimes be surprisingly thin. In which case, it’s worth thinking critically about which stories you want to talk about and how your actions could be perceived by others. Will people understand what you are trying to say and react the way you want them to? Or could they possibly be offended by you jumping on a news story? Run your ideas by a colleague before committing to anything that could perhaps be misconstrued or could cause reputational damage.

Share third party content
If you see a particularly thought-provoking or entertaining piece of content online, a good way to engage with the chatter around it is to share it on your own social media page, complete with a comment outlining your view. Curating high-quality content from other sources gives people a reason to keep coming back to your page and helps you establish yourself as a respected authority on key issues.


And finally …

Brands want to stand out over their rivals if they can show they care about more than simply making a profit. But linking their marketing to news requires delicacy, thought and genuine insights into your audience. It goes without saying no brand would want to risk appearing inauthentic, gimmicky or opportunistic by latching on to the wrong news stories, or going about it in the wrong way. But when done well, engaging with current affairs can be a hugely effective way of raising your brand profile and showcasing your unique selling points.



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