Q&A: How Reebok masters reactive storytelling for social wins

May 16, 2017

Written by NewsWhip
dan mazei reebok global newsroom reactive storytelling

Reactive storytelling can create viral wins for brands on social. Reebok’s Dan Mazei shares the secret formula to creating a nimble, strategic brand newsroom.   


Reactive storytelling is a way for brands to deliver a relevant message on a viral moment in the social sphere. The brand’s message ideally delivers something fresh, interesting, and on-point to its audiences, and has the potential to go viral itself. There was the famous “Dunk in the Dark” tweet by Oreo during a Super Bowl power outage, and we’ve previously identified other successful examples on the blog.

Reactive storytelling is a way for brands to deliver a relevant message on a viral moment in the social sphere.

But one brand publisher again and again has been creating reactive storytelling wins — Reebok. The fitness and sportswear brand has embraced tying its message of “Be More Human” into viral pop culture moments.

We last spoke to Dan Mazei, head of Reebok’s Global Newsroom, about building a nimble brand newsroom. One of our upcoming WhipSmart summit speakers, Dan has overseen the adoption of reactive marketing for one of the industry’s biggest brands.

Dan fills us in on why reactive storytelling works, when to use it, and how to embrace its unpredictable nature for those winning moments.

Why has Reebok embraced reactive marketing?

Dan: I would say that the intention to be part of the cultural conversation in a really meaningful way and for people to consider Reebok, has always been part of the strategy.

Storytelling was always our ambition. So we give ourselves the chance to tell a great story, regardless of where the consumers are scrolling. The output of that is everything from seasons-ahead planning, campaign storytelling, really smart strategic communication plans.

But our strongest weapon on a day-to-day level is reactive storytelling, our ability to quickly, nimbly, be part of the cultural conversation in a meaningful way for Reebok, so that the consumer is finding out something about the brand that they never knew before.

A filter is the most critical piece to building a reactive storytelling program. If you’re just jumping in for the sake of jumping into a conversation, you’ve already lost. If you’re doing it without KPIs or any sort of strategic focus, the answer then should be no.

What have been some of the challenges faced in implementing this?

I think there are two things that present foundational obstacles — number one is the question of, “Is this going to make a difference?”, and number two, “Is this worth it for the brand?”

Number one is something that should be solved by having a filter. A filter is the most critical piece to building a reactive storytelling program.

If you’re just jumping in for the sake of jumping into a conversation, you’ve already lost. If you’re doing it without KPIs or any sort of strategic focus, the answer then should be no.

But if you’re trying to land your brand’s point of view, if you’re trying to reach new audiences, if you’re trying to fill a natural conversation or news gap, then you have a reason.

You have to believe that it matters and be able to back it up with numbers and metrics when you’re done.


Number two — Is it worth it for the brand? That’s a tougher question. This is one that’s never going to be solved because we’re all sort of squeamish. We all read the same stories about brands that get beat up for making mistakes. The risk can be really high. But for challenger brands especially, we don’t have the size or scale to consistently get in front of consumers. When you don’t have budget to put behind your campaigns, real-time or reactive storytelling is a really powerful tool to intercept consumers where they are and get them to believe in you. Riding the crest of the right trend or the right event can really make a difference. So it’s getting through those two foundational discomforts, that are the first steps and we certainly went through those.

What other challenges exist that people might not think about?

A little bit on the other side is the muscle memory of doing reactive storytelling. If you have a team that hasn’t put their foot out there and done this before, they’re going to be uncomfortable. You kind of have to go through some failures. There are days when you brainstorm and the ideas are just awful and you look at your whiteboard and you think, “Okay, there’s no reason for us to do any of these stories”.

And your inclination is to deal with these fails. But the the reality is that it means that you probably didn’t have a reason to talk to the consumer, so let it go. You have to go through some of those before you realize, “Okay, now we’ve landed on something that matters”. Then it becomes a question of, “How can we tell this story the right way?” And that I think equals some anxiety, because that pressure is on. If you’re going to take this shot, you have to do it the right way. The first two or three times you do something like that, invariably, it’s uncomfortable.

When you’re trying to win the support of leadership, prove yourself internally to other functions, that anxiety is exacerbated. There are a lot of challenges and I respect why that makes it difficult for people to do. I don’t respect the notion of not doing it because of that. We have to take those chances as marketers. You have to have the guts to take the chance.

What were some of those early successes for Reebok?

Early on in our program, we took some shots. Some of them were really small at first. We had one that was really valid with publicly challenging the presidential candidates to see if they could run a mile in ten minutes.

The idea being that, on the campaign trail, you would never hear the words health or exercise unless it was about Obamacare. That was an insight that was real, and so we publicly challenged the presidential candidates to show that health and fitness mattered to them.

No one took that on, I think Gary Johnson toyed with it, but it still started a good conversation. For our team, it really needed to see a win to get the confidence to get out there and do this more. From there, the tides started turning and we had a little bit of a footing, to get out there and tell stories as they were happening.

From there, we were able to take more shots. Again, some of them were really small, but we found some things along the way that really worked for us.

We even found some franchises in being able to do this. There are things that we landed on, based on an insight, that we can replicate.

Whenever there was a big tv show or new movie coming out, where there was a built-in fandom, that gave us a pop-culture opportunity to get people to lean into exercise while they’re binge-watching… which is a counterintuitive thought, obviously.

For every conceivable moment that happens in the show or movie, you have to do a corresponding workout movement. We work with one of our big-time trainers to program these workouts.

For every conceivable moment that happens in the show or movie, you have to do a corresponding workout movement. We work with one of our big-time trainers to program these workouts.

Whether it was the upcoming anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer coming out, the new season of Orange is the New Black, or just Friends binge-watching, we’ve been able to do this and create something fun for people that’s around a cultural moment that they care about, and give them something new to try.
That was something that kept landing, in a really simple way.

How do you choose which stories to act on?

You’ve got to test. That’s part of the formula. It’s really, really, really important that you have a filter in place.

For us we have six pieces of criteria we look at — things like how big is the sandbox, meaning how many brands can play in this? Like for Earth Day, should you tell a story on Earth Day just because it’s Earth Day? Probably not, because everyone else is.

What is the window of time; is this still heating up? Or is this something everyone wrote about two days ago? That’s obviously where Spike comes in and that’s a very valuable tool to us.

I hold my team accountable for going through that checklist everyday when they’re thinking through ideas, because there are just some things that aren’t going to pass the test.

Those are the ones when we’re really busy to just say, you know what? We’re going to take a pass on this.

What is your advice to brands trying to kickstart their own reactive storytelling?

Number one, you have to have the team. There has to be a real team that can ideate this, but then also execute it.

I think that’s one of the misses from when this trend started seven, eight years ago. You just thought if you shoved a bunch of young people in a room, magic would happen.

What we see now is it’s really hard to do this, especially at an agency level, when you have billable rates. In-house, you don’t really have that many people. To me, this means you have to have PR, social, content together, and paid also has to be very close to that process.

Two, you have to have the fire. You have to want to do this. It can’t just be priority seven on a list. If it’s something you just put this on your calendar every day at 4 p.m. to think of something crazy to put out the door, then you’ve already lost.

You have to have the stomach. It’s not comfortable to do this. You fail a lot. There are days when it’s silent, because no one can think of an idea, and you just have to be okay with that.

You have to have real goals — what do you want to achieve certainly through one story, but also over the course of a year? If this is part of your communications mix, what do you want it to do for you?

You have to have the speed. Having a process in place on the backend of the filter to get the thing out the door is enormous. There’s so much red tape, internally, and this kind of work just doesn’t work with red tape.

There can’t be 10 different approvers, there can’t be working on a version seven, you just have to get it out the door. There has to be one decision maker who says “yes, I’m okay with it, do it”.

Then I think you have to have the science. What is a win? It’s not always going to be something that sets the world on fire.

We were really happy last week, with the sweat shirt story because It was everywhere we wanted it to be. That was a huge win for us. I have to say, it was pretty hard for someone to have missed that story and that’s great, but it’s not going to be like that every time.

So we try to go in and think, is this a scalable thing, are we trying to land a point of view with this one? Are we just trying to get a lot of views on Instagram? Are we trying to test out a new platform or reach a new outlet?

What have been some of your proudest moments recently?

The sweat shirt is the most recent one and that was a big story for us. I think internally, everyone was really happy with the Nevertheless She Persisted t-shirt.

That was leaning into a moment, but doing it with real purpose. It was based in a real, genuine want for us to show  that we’re a women-first brand and that point of view matters, and that’s how we see our female consumer.

It was a tough one to turn around because we had to create a real product and all of the proceeds of that went to the Women’s March. Every single penny of that went to a real solution that we thought women would stand behind.

For a 24-hour turnaround, there were a lot of moving pieces. To get that done, for people to say “Hey, Reebok might be a brand for me because I believe in what they’re doing”, that felt a lot more satisfying for us.

Intrinsically, politics, religion, racial diversity — these are topics that are trickier to navigate than others. That’s when the filter really matters, and you have to really think if it makes sense to put something out the door.

That was one where we had to make strong determination, and I applaud other brands that have the guts to do that when it’s something that really matters to them.

What’s ahead for Reebok’s brand newsroom?

I can confidently say that we‘ve got a big whiteboard in the newsroom and the vast majority of the real estate of that board is for new ideas. There are some up there that have my blood racing, because I’m really excited about them. I think they have a chance to make a big difference; it’s just a matter of us getting our ducks in a row and getting them out the door. Some of them we’re just a little too early on.

The intention for us is to always take it up a notch. There’s nothing that we’ve done that we can say we did absolutely to the best of our abilities. There’s always a way for us to make it stronger or bigger. Every chance that we have to take a shot is an exciting one because we want to see if we can best ourselves.
The only way for us to see that is by watching how people respond to it and how the media picks it up.

There are some ideas that are very much of a cultural vein, but there are some on that board that are very provocative, and we’re going to see how they go.  

Thanks Dan! We look forward to hearing more of your brand storytelling insights at WhipSmart on June 7th. For those who want to hear more wisdom of social publishing pioneers, check out our upcoming summit. Existing NewsWhip clients can reach out to their contact for a reduced ticket.   

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