Marketing Marketing Services Advertising

Bad news could be good news for your brand

By Rob Kavanagh |

May 31, 2019 | 5 min read

The news is mostly negative. And though we hate to admit it, we love it. We crave feel-good stories but wolf down the bad stuff twice as fast – like bones being removed from kids’ sweets; arguing about the colour of passports; or whether a royal baby’s name is within brand guidelines. We’re naturally drawn to the divisive.


But brands are always drawn to the good news. The happy events. Because it’s safer to jump onto a bandwagon crowded with smiling faces to share your quick turnaround tactical ad. Yet it’s often overcrowded with humblebrag platitudes. How many brands did we see engage with the royal wedding? Don’t know about you, I lost count at 16,612. Nothing wrong with this. But if a brand wants to actually stand out, it needs to stand apart.

So, if the cultural conversation is with the bad stuff, why don’t brands engage with it more?

It’s too easy to simply say ‘too toxic’. Because while nobody wants to upset or lose a customer, there is an opportunity here.

You can find a way to engage with negative news stories, but it takes a confident brand to do so. One that’s willing to put its head above the parapet and do something a little bit controversial. It’s high stakes, but there can be high rewards.

As creative agencies inside this hypersensitive and reactionary world of emotions, it’s our job to deliver work that resonates. With punters plugged in and armed with an opinion, brands have the chance to not just sympathise, but empathise through creative work.

To bottle that empathy, you need to think along the lines of how the news should be: unbiased, objective. It’s a fine line, but a brand needn’t have a strong opinion on Brexit negotiations, or stridently back remain or leave. A confident brand will hold a mirror to a situation as it unfolds but, unlike some establishments (looking at you, Wetherspoons), it will avoid needlessly coming down on one side of the argument.

That said, it sure is tricky to engage with political and cultural events if you have to wait three weeks for sign-off on an idea that’s become mired because stakeholder B thinks idea C will appeal to audience segment F, but Legal need 72 hours lest we...

You get the gist. The moment’s passed. Nobody cares anymore.

Big businesses tend to have strict guidelines about what they can and can’t say in their marketing comms, what subjects they should and shouldn’t touch. But, if brands and agencies can get their stakeholder approval hotlines in place ahead of time (media, production etc) and adopt a newsroom-like mentality, the unplanned tactical ad can powerfully complement the longer-term strategy.

And creatives love this stuff. The high of a tactical lasts for weeks because you’re living through it with the audience. Clients love it for putting them on the pulse, and Jane Public loves it for being relatable. Look at Paddy Power. Sure, some of its moves have been less than savoury, but its quickfire ‘bet’ on the 2013 horsemeat scandal was right on the money.

The most powerful brands are the ones ingrained in culture. They’re the ones perfectly poised to take a stand on polarising events, in a way that chimes with their brand and people just go, ‘Yeah, well played.’

U-Studio, our in-house team at Unilever, recently did this with Marmite. When the decision was made to extend Article 50, we reacted with our ‘Hard Breakfast? Soft Breakfast? No Breakfast?’ ads across print and social. The social sentiment was 80% positive, which is ludicrous considering Brexit + yeast should be a car crash.

But it worked, because it wasn’t jumping on the bandwagon, clamouring to shout ‘first!’ We managed to leverage a divisive situation without ostracising people. A bit like KFC’s masterful FCK, which employed self-deprecating humour to skate over the fact it literally had zero clucks to give.

It was reactive, it was pitched just right and, importantly, it did the business. It doesn’t need to be a momentous statement. Nobody looks to a condiment or fried chicken for the meaning of life.

If brands and agencies want to be part of a conversation, they can’t be late to the party. You’ve got to understand what makes people tick and, more importantly, why. News is fleeting by definition, so you need to be ready to react. And though any brand can spin creative around happy news, it takes proper courage and cultural nuance to make the best of a bad news situation.

Rob Kavanagh is executive creative director at Oliver UK

Marketing Marketing Services Advertising

More from Marketing

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +