UPS, Unions, and Ukraine: What we learned from the top brand stories of 2022

December 21, 2022

Written by Brett Lofgren
It’s been a busy year for brand coverage, with what feels like years worth of media packed into 12 short months. In this blog, analyzing the top brand stories from 2022, we’re going to share the dominant brands, themes and voices driving public engagement.

Before we dive into the data, we have to recognize the Elon Musk in the room.

Twitter dominated attention

If there’s one takeaway from this year it’s that Elon Musk drives headlines, with his two most high-profile companies Twitter and Tesla comfortably at the top of the charts in terms of public interest — each having more than double the level of engagement of even the other most engaging brands.

The brands with the most engagement in 2022 among the top 100 stories, found using NewsWhip Spike

The top stories either looked at Musk’s actions since entering the picture as CEO of Twitter, or more specifically focused on the uncertainty it created amongst Twitter’s labor force, with many losing their jobs in the immediate aftermath of Musk’s self-appointment. This happened despite the previous CEO having spoken semi-publicly to employees about their fears, as covered by NPR.

Most of the top coverage was driven by the breakneck policy changes on the platform, with some cheering and some criticizing the rapid pace of change at the social media site.

Tesla was tied inexorably to Musk, so it was often the case that when Musk was mentioned Tesla also was, perhaps artificially inflating the brand’s mentions.

Human interest drove public interest 

Human interest stories still move audiences, and that’s as true for brand coverage as it is for local news highlights or viral Facebook posts. 

UPS was a brand that benefitted strongly from this kind of coverage, thanks to positive pieces about its workforce. In fact, two different human interest stories about UPS workers appeared in our top 100 brand stories. The first was about a driver that saved a dog from a backyard pool, which was covered to huge adulation by local site KSLA. The second was about a driver that left a kind message for a new mother. What both of these show is how valuable a workforce can be for branding and reputational purposes, so building that connection and hiring people that fit the organization’s goals and values is always worth the extra effort.

Human interest stories weren’t always positive for brands however, with one prominent one being about money raised for a worker who received only a ‘goodie bag’ from his employers at Burger King despite not missing a day of work for 27 years — again showing the importance of valuing employees, even at the local level.

Critiques also caused engagement, led by conservative publishers

Not all coverage was rosy, of course, and conservative coverage in particular was often critical of brands, or pulled brands into political conversation. And it resonated with people. This was evidenced by the fact that both The Daily Wire and Breitbart found themselves in the top five publications writing about brands this year.

The top five publishers writing the top 100 brand stories of 2022, ranked by engagement

The Daily Wire’s success was driven by making coverage political. The conservative publication often covered brand news from a contrary position, or tied any brand news to the prevailing political winds of the moment. 

Much of this ended up being about Elon Musk taking over Twitter, but there were also pieces about employers dropping vaccine and mask mandates (including the likes of General Electric), and broad critiques of businesses it considered to be implementing a ‘woke agenda’.

Breitbart’s coverage was similar, but also held space for criticism of electric vehicles as a concept, which has been a major theme for conservative publications this year. 

NPR’s coverage was focused on the impact of labor unions in the United States, which have seen some of the lowest enrollment rates in years. In particular, the April story about Amazon workers voting to unionize in NYC, was one of the top brand stories of the year. The New York Times and ABC News had a similar approach to brand coverage, centering on more traditional business topics- inflation, policy, supply chain and, yes, unionization.

Brands’ response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a major talking point

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, brands had a decision to make. Did they take a stand and make their position known, or did they quietly allow business to carry on as usual for fear of blowback? Most emphatically chose the former, and it was reflected in a good deal of coverage — almost all of which looked positively on the brands that took a stand on the issue. 

The likes of McDonald’s and Starbucks notably pulled their businesses from Russia, but other brands also resonated with their actions, with tech having a particular impact.

Top stories about brands leaving Russia

The most prominent was perhaps Starlink availability for Ukrainians, but other actions included Apple halting sales in Russia, Microsoft helping to combat malware, and General Motors providing dozens of SUVs to help move people around and help the defensive effort. 

It’s been said that brands taking a stand sometimes don’t put their money where their mouth is, but it’s hard to argue that these companies didn’t make tangible actions that had a real-world impact.

In a year with headlines dominated by bids, bans, and buyouts, it’s important to remember we are all human. We love public debates & controversies, but we still crave feel-good stories. People often associate good employees with a good brand. In the case of UPS, they got it right.

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