Earlier in March, Burger King was in the news. But not for the right reasons. Its attempt to ride on the newsjacking train with a sardonic comment on gender stereotyping on International Women’s Day landed the brand in the soup.

Newsjacking and trendjacking – the practice of creating content around breaking news or a new trend – are marketing tactics that companies use to drive brand visibility, user engagement and online traffic. Depending on how well a company plans and executes such campaigns, it could give the brand a big boost in the short term or be the cause of great embarrassment.

News clinches the top position among various types of online content, with online traffic to news websites growing, particularly since the start of the pandemic. News surrounding major events like elections, sporting events and award shows tends to draw even more interest. Hence, it may be a good idea to create content around newsy topics for your online and social media platforms.

Newsjacking – Direct, Indirect, Accidental

As a content marketing tactic, newsjacking that rides on a news story that has caught people’s attention has been around for long. A company may create blogs and media commentaries on an ongoing economic crisis that has hit the headlines or build a campaign theme around a popular event such as the Oscars or the FIFA World Cup.

Newsjacking takes different forms – from a direct reference to the brand to a gentle poke where the brand’s appearance is subtle, or sometimes even accidental. Last year, we saw companies create social media campaigns that reminded users to be safe, and practice hygiene and social distancing. Some made a direct reference to their brand or products, while others made subtle and indirect references.

Others have piggybacked on other popular brands. For example, the launch of a new version of the iPhone always creates a buzz. This is something that Nestle took advantage of a few years ago. Nestle used this opportunity to start a campaign, “We don’t bend, we #break” for its brand of chocolates, KitKat. That was a direct reference to the bending feature of the iPhone 6 Plus.

Remember the photo-bombing stunt at the Golden Globes 2019 when a young woman with bottles of Fiji Water on a tray appeared behind celebrities on the red carpet? Some said the anonymous water girl stole the show at the star-studded event, with hundreds of memes on social media turning the bottled water brand into an instant success.

An even bigger newsjacking hero was a used Starbucks cup on the sets of HBO’s highly popular fantasy show, Game of Thrones (GOT), in 2019. When fans spotted a Starbucks cup on the sets of GOT in a photo released on Twitter, some were amused but many others were not. Was it a case of the cup carelessly photo-bombing the shoot or was it intentional? As it later turned out, it was accidentally left on the sets by an actor. But somebody’s negligence was somebody else’s gain. Starbucks is believed to have enjoyed at least $250,000 in free product placement thanks to the memes that were created around this episode and the total public relations value by word of mouth alone was more than $1 million.

Follow Some Guidelines to Get it Right

You do not necessarily need to get into guerrilla mode and plant things ‘accidentally’ to newsjack your way into newspaper columns and social media. You can adopt a more traditional approach by creating content around a trending topic or news item.

For example, if your business is related to procurement, supply chain management or inventory management, think of what content you can create around the recent incident of a traffic logjam at the Suez Canal that is affecting global supply chains.

If your organization is into digital technologies, you will find greater scope for thought leadership placement in the media these days. Constantly look out for new developments being reported in the media on topics close to your business. Think of how you can position your executives as experts and create opinion pieces and blogs in their name that offer readers better understanding of emerging technologies.

Another tried-and-tested method is to create a calendar of important days in advance that you want to be associated with. For example, if sustainability is an important theme for your business, plan to release content to go with World Water Day on March 22, Earth Day on April 22, Bike to Work Day on May 21 or World Environment Day on June 5. You can capitalize on increased interest on the topic around the time of these designated days of the year.

But using newsjacking as a means to increase visibility and brand interest may backfire if not done well. Here are some guidelines to remember.

  1. Decide on the themes that you want to pick; ensure the themes connect well with your line of work or the values the company stands for.
  2. Research the trending news well before jumping at it. The facts must be accurate and the topic not too sensitive to comment on.
  3. Keep a tab on your peers to ensure you are not repeating something others have already said.
  4. Timing is critical. Something which is breaking news today may not elicit reader interest after 10-15 days. If you want to drive traffic through newsjacking, act fast.
  5. Publishing content purely for the sake of publicity without tying it to your brand values can come across as insincere. For example, if your company’s record in driving sustainability or gender balance is poor, a campaign on these topics exposes the brand to more risks than potential gains.

Some Lessons on Newsjacking

Let’s look at three examples of newsjacking – one that backfired and the other two that worked well.

International Women’s Day – Burger King

Going back to the Burger King controversy, let’s see what caused the brand such ridicule and scorn on social media. It all started with a Twitter post by Burger King that cheekily pronounced that “Women belong in the kitchen.” It was followed by a job post that declared its intention to train and recruit more women chefs. The intention behind the provocative slogan of the first post was to draw attention to the fact that the company was recruiting more women chefs, and hence encouraging more women to join the workforce. It was all in good faith but it ended up sounding tone-deaf, and hence created just the opposite impression. After initially defending its position, Burger King then decided to pull down the post.

The Burger King experiment reveals the importance of being mindful and empathetic toward how one’s target audience might perceive the content. Secondly, humor and sarcasm can get you a lot of attention, but it must be done in a smart way. If your audience misses the joke or the pun, your content will appear to be dull, banal or outright offensive. Thirdly, as a brand, Burger King is not associated with gender rights or a great workplace culture. Reports of what it is like to work at Burger King do not paint a rosy picture. Hence, its post did not appear to be sincere.

Crispy Rendang – IKEA

Rendang is a Southeast Asian gravy dish that is relished for its richness and spicy flavor with a sweet hint of coconut. In 2018, a MasterChef judge’s comment that the rendang prepared by a participant was not crispy enough led to a social media uproar in Malaysia and Singapore. Netizens were appalled at how a sauce-based dish like rendang could be described as crispy. IKEA tapped into it by creating an ad campaign for a cooking pan that said, “Tolerates everything. Except ‘crispy’ rendang.” The post went viral, with IKEA earning praise for its smart and timely campaign to newsjack its way into a brewing controversy.

The Girl in Polka Dots – Amul Butter

A brand that has been newsjacking long before the term became popular is the iconic Indian brand, Amul Butter. The brand’s mascot, a girl in a red polka dotted dress, has been commenting on all major global and national news through billboards and social media, and drawing laughs over the past 25 years. A couple of years ago Prime Minister Narendra Modi thanked the brand for its humor after it posted a tweet to wish him on his birthday. The brand has also courted controversies by commenting on highly sensitive political issues but that has not eroded its popularity.

As these experiences show, for newsjacking to work, brands need to be in touch with the sentiments and sensibilities of the audience, stay on top of what’s trending and time it well.

How About Some Trendjacking?

Similar to the concept of newsjacking, trendjacking is a marketing tactic that piggybacks on the audience’s interest in a new trend or a hashtag to create some hype for the brand. Companies have used TikTok challenges or trending hashtags like the #metoo or the #BLM movement to create original content and drive traffic and visibility.

The same guidelines work here — be honest and sincere, be sensitive and get it out on time to extract maximum mileage out of a trend.

Here is an example of how a brand created some great content through trendjacking and won much love on social media.

10-Year Challenge – Lego

Remember the 10-year Challenge that took social media by storm in 2019? Social media users posted photos of themselves of today and from 10 years ago. Toy maker Lego turned that into a marketing opportunity. Lego posted a tweet that showed Lego blocks from 2009 and 2019, with the slogan “Creativity doesn’t age.”

An unsaid message through this post was that not everything ages poorly, some brands are timeless and forever appealing. It is an excellent example of how a brand successfully used a highly popular trend and tied it to its core brand message.

Newsjacking offers a great way to create relevant, topical content, and stay in the public eye. But such content needs to align well with the company’s content strategy and brand messaging. Overall, it is safe to keep a distance from controversial subjects or topics that are too frivolous, but it may be a good idea to break the mold sometimes. Pick a news item or an event that may not be directly related to your business but it can be turned around to suit your purpose. Amul Butter and Lego are great examples of that.