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Reactive Marketing: Why timing is (still) everything

David Alexander

Reactive marketing is the effort by brands to quickly produce content that responds to a current event, talking point or faux pas in a clever or thought-provoking way. It has roots in the newsprint advertising industry, but social media has been instrumental in its meteoric rise. Today, reactive content can be conceptualised, created and shared within minutes. And, when it’s done right, the public response can be just as fast – and astonishingly valuable.

Don’t be fooled into thinking the good stuff comes out of nowhere though. As with all great marketing, there are smart people and sharp-thinking brands behind the memes.

Striking the right tone with reactive marketing

Success with reactive marketing comes when a brand masters a light, humorous tone that’s just edgy enough to be funny but doesn’t belittle another brand or the audience.

In November 2020, just as England was preparing to enter its second national lockdown, fast food chain Burger King released a statement on Twitter titled “Order from McDonald’s.”

The tweet encouraged customers to order from a number of its rivals, going on to explain how “restaurants employing thousands of staff really need your support at the moment.” It quickly went viral, racking up over 60,000 retweets and quote tweets and 168,000 likes.

It was a bold move from the fast. food giant but seemed to capture the mood of the nation that had just suffered an incredibly difficult eight months, with the near future again looking uncertain.

Critics would argue it was just a cheap way to score publicity off the back of a global pandemic. But to openly promote your arch-rival’s products is a big deal, especially at a time when companies are increasingly taking aim at their rival’s products, or indeed shutting down the use of competing products. Doing their bit for the entire industry also bolstered Burger King’s brand reputation for caring about more than just selling burgers.

Tesco was another brand that successfully reacted to events caused by the pandemic, this time in April 2021, the day England began lifting some of the third national lockdown restrictions that would see many pubs able to open for the first time in four months.

Ads and social posts encouraged Tesco customers to support their local pub instead of popping into their local Tesco store. The timing was impeccable, and it struck the perfect tone with its customers, with many praising the selflessness of the ads, including the wider media.

The ads bolstered the brand’s image and strengthened its long-standing brand proposition of “Every little helps.”

When reactive goes bad

Reactive marketing doesn’t have to take a light-hearted approach to be effective, but it must strike the right tone. The usual mix of sincerity, authenticity and relevancy applies. But there is a fine line between taking advantage of a situation in good faith and doing it gratuitously. Or even getting it so wrong you unwittingly offend a large number of people. As John Lydgate famously pointed out, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time,” but for one brand this quickly turned into angering just about everyone over the course of several days.

April Fool’s is traditionally a day when marketers, PR teams and social media managers get to have a bit of fun and show off the lighter side of their brands, hoping to go viral in the process. It’s almost akin to a global reactive marketing day; one where brands get to prepare well in advance. But sometimes even advanced planning can’t help, which is when effective reactive marketing really comes into its own. What follows is a masterclass in how not to handle things.

On 29 March 2021, Volkswagen released a press release announcing a rebrand of its US operations to Voltswagen of America, emphasising the commitment to its electric vehicle endeavours. However, the release, dated 29 April, was swiftly removed from its website before confusingly being confirmed to journalists and republished the following day with an amended date of 30 March. Unbelievably, later that day, VW announced they would not be changing their name; it was all an elaborate April Fool’s Day ruse: “The renaming was designed to be an announcement in the spirit of April Fool’s Day, highlighting the launch of the all-electric ID.4 SUV.”

Not only was the hoax mistimed; the subsequent removal, confirmation and eventual denial was a marketing and PR disaster. By the next afternoon, VW’s social teams were trying to make light of the situation:

However, everyone from the duped journalists to the public was unimpressed, accusing the company of outright lying. Not great for a brand with consumer trust issues thanks to a recent history of deception:

This proved it’s often better for brands to hold their hands up to a mistake early and try to turn it into a positive, than attemp to style it out and end up digging yourself deeper, as VW found.

Turning a negative into a positive

Things go wrong in business. And often it’s the marketing department that’s tasked with cleaning up the mess. A great example of this came in April 2021, when it was announced that food retailer Marks & Spencer had begun legal proceedings for trademark infringement against the supermarket chain Aldi over the similarities between its Cuthbert The Caterpillar cake and Marks & Spencer’s iconic and ever popular Colin The Caterpillar. Aldi’s social media team sprang into action with a series of hilarious posts and memes, using the hashtag #FreeCuthbert:

While the publicity around this could have tainted Aldi’s brand reputation, they instead saw this as an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive by taking control of the story and gaining support from their audience and the wider public. They also saw it as an opportunity to show the fun and down-to-earth side of the Aldi brand.

Planning for the unexpected

Although there are instances of heat-of-the-moment genius that result in reactive marketing gold, they are the exception. Planning is still key to success. The potential rewards for brands that master the balance between timing and creativity are enormous.

In April 2021, a football story broke that sent shockwaves through the sport. Six of the largest English Premier League clubs joined a break-away European Super League along with six other European teams, in direct competition to UEFA’s Champions League. The plans would see the 12 clubs never having to qualify for their place in the league, locking most other clubs out and devaluing other competitions.

The football community, politicians and even Prince William all united to condemn the plans. Many labelled the move as greed and pointed out the short-sightedness of the plans, announced without fan consultation. Within days, and amid the continuing backlash, the plans began to unravel, leaving the competition in tatters and the “founding” clubs severely embarrassed.

Sensing a golden marketing opportunity, up stepped Dutch brewing company and Champions League sponsor Heineken with the perfect embodiment of how everyone connected to the “beautiful game” was feeling:

The line “Don’t drink & start a league”, alongside the hashtag #BetterTogether, leveraged Heineken’s long-standing responsible drinking campaigns and was perfectly timed and on brand. The creative captivated the hearts and minds of the global football community, including some of its more distinguished fans, almost acting as a celebratory toast to the end of what many agreed would have been a disaster for European football:


Tapping into reactive marketing is simple. Brands need to be on the lookout for the happenings that capture their audiences’ attentions, whether that’s something trending on social media or in the news cycle. To make it work, they need to act fast and be the first to enter the arena – one tweet is all it takes to go viral. And when things go wrong, as they so often do, act decisively and creatively. Sometimes it’s possible to turn a negative into a positive.

A version of this article previously appeared in Advertising Week 360, in January 2021. It is updated from an earlier article on the same topic that you can read here: Reactive Marketing: Why timing is everything, published in our Frame of Mind blog in February 2020.