Few ad campaigns could have sparked as much controversy as Protein World’s latest effort, which asked female consumers ‘Are you beach body ready?’ as a means of promoting its weight loss supplements. Adorned with an image of a slender, bronzed young woman, the advert caused uproar as people claimed it sent out a false – and deeply offensive – message to women. Following a flurry of complaints, the Advertising Standard Authority (ASA) is now investigating whether the advert breaks harm and offence rules or is socially irresponsible.
However, it wasn’t just the general public that reacted strongly to Protein World. Other brands got in on the act too, notably Carlsberg, whose ‘Are you beer body ready?’ posters were soon adorning Tube stations across London. While intended to poke fun at Protein World, the beer company’s adverts were also a brilliant example of reactive marketing. Yes, Protein World may not be a direct competitor but Carlsberg had successfully tapped into a cultural and viral trend, which, ultimately, is what ‘Are you beach body ready?’ has become.
Indeed, brands have no choice but to jump on the back of social and cultural phenomena in order to stay relevant in this day and age. “If you’re not up to date with what’s going on, your business isn’t current and, if your business isn’t current, you’re not marketing yourself effectively,” says Shaun Roberts, founder and managing director of Creative Catalysts, the online marketing agency that’s devised its own Protein World-inspired campaign, ‘Are you beach party ready?’, to promote a forthcoming event in Wales.
Suffice to say, in a world where millions of people are online at any given time, one can’t blame companies for going all-out to get in front of as many customers as possible. “There’s a 24/7 scramble for eyeballs,” says Rich Leigh, founder of Rich Leigh & Company, the PR agency and PRexamples.com, the stunts and campaigns website. “Companies will do anything to get in front of target audiences and smart reactive marketing allows companies to do that by inserting themselves into stories [that] people they want to reach are already reading, following and talking about.”
Of course, the likes of Carlsberg are blessed with hefty marketing budgets but achieving the same sort of reach isn’t beyond start-ups and SMEs. It just takes some imagination and a sense of adventure. “You have to be very creative and a little more risky to achieve cut-through,” says Jamie Matthews, CEO and managing partner at Initials Marketing. “Anything safe will die. It won’t get the traction that you need.”
On the other hand, companies must be careful not to takes things too far. “You have to gauge the temperature of the situation that you are potentially entering your company into and the repercussions of that situation,” explains Roberts.
But what appears beyond doubt is that social media has helped level the playing field for small firms. While the big boys will often fork out for a promoted tweet or post, money needn’t be an obstacle for a start-up that’s devised a smart social-media campaign. “The internet cannot distinguish between large corporations and SMEs,” says Phil Foster, founder and CEO of Love Energy Savings, the energy price comparison website. “They are all account holders with their own username and, as such, everyone is given the same opportunity. The public ultimately decides whether or not the content deserves recognition.”
Love Energy Savings ran its own reactive marketing campaign in the run-up to the general election, conducting a survey of business owners that asked them which party they thought would save them the most on their energy bills. After discovering that the majority of people wanted more information, the company compiled a report on the stance of the parties in time for the leaders’ debates. The campaign was picked up by the press and Foster was invited by various outlets to offer comments on the election, which helped position him and his company as thought leaders in the energy sector. “Our campaign wanted to encourage people to talk about their energy bills and inform people about savings they could make,” says Foster. “By jumping on the back of a cultural trend that aims to inform and encourage debate, it was the perfect vehicle to aid discussion.”
Foster naturally believes that SMEs have the capacity to be heard above the corporate giants, if what they’re saying is interesting enough. “I think smaller businesses can have a voice that is just as loud as larger competitors if they have something worthwhile to say,” he adds. “It is ultimately all about supply and demand. If you can provide something that people want, it doesn’t matter about your size.”
Some would even argue that start-ups, by their very nature, are better equipped in general. “The main difference between start-ups and ‘the big boys’ is the speed at which an idea can go from thought to action,” says Leigh. “Take the hoop-jumping out of the process, which, frustratingly, very often dilutes an idea to the point where it’s not worth doing anyway, and the biggest advantage for SMEs is the chance to move first.”
Taking a stand
BrewDog, the craft brewer and bar operator, is renowned for its bold and brash approach to marketing. Ahead of last year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the company released a beer called Hello My Name Is Vladimir as a protest against anti-LGBT legislation introduced by Russian president Vladimir Putin. It sent a case of the beer to the Kremlin and also left beer at the Russian Consulate in Edinburgh and the Russian Embassy in London.
“The beer was a double IPA featuring a Warhol-inspired image of Vladimir Putin wearing make up on the label,” says Sarah Warman, senior marketing projects manager at BrewDog.
“We took the protest beer online with the sarcastic hashtag #NotForGays,” she continues. “Through this we drove discussion and awareness around Putin’s legislation and donated a portion of the profits to human rights charities.”
Warman believes companies should only engage in reactive marketing if it makes sense for their brand. “You shouldn’t jump on a trend just for the sake of it,” she adds. “The craft beer revolution is about getting people as passionate about craft beer as we are but it’s also about upholding our core values of freedom, integrity and passion, which ensures we always strive to strike fear at the heart of the gatekeepers of establishment. Hello My Name Is Vladimir is a perfect example of this.”