Proactive vs. reactive brand advertising. Do you know the difference?

Dave Yeates

Two weeks ago, I thought about sharing my thoughts on the Pepsi gaffe. It wasn’t long for my feed filled up with everyone else’s thoughts, and I realised I would simply be reacting. A cheap shot for any thought leader. But it did make me think…

When it comes to proactive vs. reactive brand advertising.
Do you know the difference?

Evidence shows that a considered and proactive campaign can minimise risk and generate more cut through for our audiences. But what is it? What’s the difference? And how can we learn from those who’ve come before?

1. Proactive > reactive

A reactive campaign, like that of Pepsi’s brand ad featuring Kendall Jenner, tend to try and use current topical issues to create a narrative for the campaigns. Now sometimes these can work, but they can also go horribly wrong (like the ill-fated Cinnabon incident) – which leaves us wondering if there’s a better way…

Enter, the proactive campaign. It’s important to understand that a proactive campaign isn’t any more “active” from a media-mix point of view. What it does have going for it, however, is a proactive approach to these current topical issues. An example of this is [multinational] or Australian bank NAB and their white research paper on Success, where they aim to lead by understanding their audience more. Proactive campaigns pose a lower delivered risk out in the market and can offer brands an opportunity for leadership, rather than leverage.

2. Give the narrative a job to do…

While it’s important to recognise proactive vs. reactive, there’s a third character to this story, and it doesn’t end pretty for South Australian brewer Coopers. Their recent affiliation – marrying Australia’s oldest brewery with Australia’s oldest running charity, the Bible Society – left much to be desired. And even before the Bible Society decided to go rogue, people were questioning the validity of a brewery associating with an antiquated society that didn’t mean much to the values of their consumer audience. By the time Coopers were in damage control for their stance on marriage equality, the entire narrative was lost. I use this case study to make sure I’m not beating up on all reactive campaigns – a campaign with no leverage at all can pose a huge risk to public sentiment; like the old adage, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything”.

3. Lead, don’t leverage

Let’s zoom out for a second. What are we trying to do? Well, if I’m Pepsi I want more people to buy Pepsi, I need to stay in the market and relevant with a changing audience, I want to shift public sentiment away from Coke, and I want to see the uptick on my bottom line. Although vague, you can [kind of] see where a campaign with a narrative around equality and a Kardashian came from [sort of].

But let’s take a moment and compare it to Nike’s recent campaign about equality:

What we have here is no leverage, Nike is not using the public issue for selfish gain, the product placement is barely there. Instead, the narrative is strong, poetic and seeks to lead. The brand seeks to bring together the brand story, sponsored talent and social issues in a way that means something, that stakes a claim and makes a stand on the issue. It shows that the brand isn’t afraid of spending money on what matter to their values and “equality” is one of them.

To use another ad, another multinational and the same issue, we can see similar leadership in Apples Christmas campaign. What is traditionally a spot about sharing the joy of Christmas, Apple saw as an opportunity to side with equality and suggest we “open our heart to everyone”. The result is an amusing – and somewhat safe – ad for a company with a global and diverse customer base. Not all of whom celebrate the holiday season.

4. Choose wisely

I use equality as an example here because it’s such a topical issue with a great deal of brand support, but please don’t hear this as a message to align your brand with what’s in vogue today. The bullshit radar of the market today is at an all-time high, and if the message and the narrative doesn’t ring true to your value or brand pillars, you may find yourself on board Coopers’ rudderless boat.

If you’re sitting there thinking to yourself “hmmm, what social issue should we try and align with” I’m afraid you’ve already lost. Making those decisions would be reactive, seeking to leverage social issues to create a narrative. You’ll end up mashing together something vaguely righteous with a Kardashian again.

It starts with a true corporate identity, an authenticity and a set of values that are unwavering and true to the DNA of the organisation. If a stance on a social issue isn’t taking control of your thoughts as you read this, I’d say you’ve got some work to do.

5. Bring it to life with story

But let’s say your corporate identity is pretty clear on its support of a social issue. The challenge then becomes the narrative. Making it fit.  Let’s go back to where we started and what we’re trying to achieve. Perception, preference, or perhaps it’s as humble and authentic as having no agenda at all but to stand for an issue that matters. The power is in the story you tell to your market. It’s far less about mash-ups and far more about making it fit with your own story.

For Nike, it was the poetry of sport, the grit of the concrete court, the determination of their star sponsored talent. Their willingness to draw a line (or paint, rather) on an issue they felt was not only important, but that sport itself, at its very heart, seemed to solve.

Work out how your products, messages and markets fit together around the issue. How do they interact with it? What role do your products play? But more importantly what role do each of the pillars of your brand play and how can that be used to tell a story that 1) is compelling, and 2) bring value to the issue itself.

Resolve that first, then brief your agency in, you’ll thank me for it.

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