What is 'newsjacking', and how can drinks brands jump on it?


Related tags BrewDog Marketing

Viral marketing is the holy grail of 'earned' media. Tom Harvey, co-founder, YesMore drinks marketing agency, takes a look at how drinks brands can make newsjacking work for them.

Butterkist is not a brand you often see in the news. But when the popcorn maker drove a digital billboard to Downing Street in the middle of the UK's ‘Partygate’ scandal​ - it was suddenly all over the press and social media. Butterkist did it again ​in May with ads in the national press showing doctored courtroom drawings of the ‘Wagatha Christie’ trial, with jurors and lawyers holding bags of popcorn.

The brand’s ‘here for the drama/grab the Butterkist’’ positioning was perfectly encapsulated by these stunts, which hit the right note with the media and the public, and were shared widely as a result. 

Viral marketing is the holy grail of ‘earned’ media. The word of mouth, conversation and ‘talkability’ generated when something you did goes viral is a powerful way of reaching millions of people.

However many brands (and marketers, even) struggle to make it work. It’s not as easy as simply ‘going viral’ - there are many tactics you might need to try before you finally strike gold. And one of those is newsjacking - the tactic Butterkist pulled off so perfectly.

Newsjacking is essentially when a brand and its marketing team/agency react quickly to jump on, or hijack, a popular news story - usually using humour - in order to kick start the sort of  sharing that can lead to ‘going viral’. 

Journalists often need a topical hook for articles, and those on social media use the platforms to talk about what’s going on in the news. So newsjacking is where brands tap into this with their marketing.

Within the British drinks industry, it’d be fair to say that, love them or not; BrewDog are the ultimate masters of newsjacking. They do it in multiple ways, and most frequently by launching limited edition SKUs that reference big talking points in the news, such as; United For Ukraine, Ald IPA, Barnard Castle Eye Test, Hello My Name is Boris, Hello My Name is Vladamir, and more.

Whilst BrewDog has largely led the way in terms of newsjacking in the drinks industry, some brands have attempted to follow in their footsteps - even to the point of mimicking BrewDog campaigns. For example Forest Road Brewing Co in Hackney imitated a BrewDog ad showing a can of Punk IPA in front of the word ‘ADVERT’ in block caps over a white background. It almost transcended newsjacking by being more like ‘Adjacking’ - a term I just made up. 

Outside of the drinks industry there are considerably more examples to draw inspiration from, as other categories seem to have been more open to experimenting in this space. As well as Butterkist, mentioned above, brands such as Specsavers​ (many times​!) , Weetabix, Heinz and EVEN the NHS and GCHQ on Twitter have dabbled too. 

But beware...

'Ensure your final step is an internal sanity check from at least one impartial person. Polarising is good, overly offensive or illegal is not.'

On the other hand, newsjacking done badly can fail in all sorts of ways.

Brands that try to do it too safely or cautiously, can often fall flat with their execution.

And similarly brands who get tunnel vision on an idea can easily fall flat on their faces by overstepping, insulting or offending.

For example Knee Deep Brewing in California were taken to their knees by Sony Pictures with a lawsuit ​stopping them from referencing their Breaking Bad Netflix series in their ‘Breaking Bud’ beer release. Failure? Maybe, but it did gain headlines which was the ultimate objective.

Drinks brands looking to give newsjacking a shot need to be set up to respond quickly - time spent assessing what might work and a few planning sessions ahead of time would be a good place to start, so you can recognize the right opportunity when it arises, and be ready to move quickly. 

Tom Harvey
Tom Harvey

Brands trying this also need to be comfortable with failing as much (or more) than they succeed.

As long as newsjacking is carefully thought out though, failed attempts shouldn’t harm a brand too much, and the low cost of investment and quick turnaround mean those that don’t land won’t have cost too much. 

Brands also need to be comfortable with bending brand guidelines occasionally to get ‘on a level’ with their target audience (It’s worth reading David Meerman Scott’s book ‘newsjacking: How to Inject Your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage’​ from 2011 to learn more).

YesMore's 5 steps to newsjacking success

  1. Get everyone on board. Brands wanting to try their hand at newsjacking need buy-in from all relevant teams. Stakeholders need to be okay with going off piste from the norm, and be okay with taking risks and feeling slightly uneasy but excited about it. BUT,  avoid too many people getting involved and watering down the idea: design by committee doesn’t get headlines and it could end up being magnolia.
  2. Understand your territory: brand managers need to know the values of the brand, and the limitations of what areas are/aren’t okay to venture into - and ensure this is communicated across the company and its agency suppliers. Then brands need to agree upon the criteria for what sort of news stories the brand can and will tap into, and what ones they won’t. Is it okay to newsjack stories about politics, protests, conspiracies, criminal trials, celebrity, TV, music, etc? 
  3. Understand how to communicate your key message in this space. Invest time with briefing team members or marketing agencies to monitor the news daily and pitch relevant ideas that meet the pre-agreed criteria
  4. Be ready to move fast: strip back and slim down the internal sign off process. Speed and reactivity are key to success here, and slow sign off processes will kill the idea.
  5. But not too fast - ensure your final step is at least one impartial person to give it a final internal sanity check to ensure fast ideas aren’t insensitive or missing the point. Polarising is good, overly offensive or illegal is not.

Related topics Industry Voices