By now every marketer has at least heard about the disastrous Pepsi ad and while there is no shortage of commentary about it (particularly on Twitter), I had to weigh in.
The ad’s failure comes down to outright missing three things it was clearly trying to accomplish.
1. Goal: Demonstrate contemporary relevance and understanding of the larger conversation consumers are having.
How it failed: The ad belittled the seriousness of protests happening around the United States, and all over the world, by suggesting problems, particularly with police, can be solved with a soft drink.
I’m all for brands to take a stand and contribute to the collective zeitgeist of our times; however, this has to be handled so delicately. Social marketing works best when the issue is closely tied to your brand and actually does something to help the problem (à la Honey Nut Cheerios and the honey bees) or possibly when detailing support of an important cultural narrative (a la Audi and gender equality). But, social marketing doesn’t work when the gravity of the issue(s) is ignored and the brand is the solution.
2. Goal: Show inclusivity and diversity, which resonates with young people, by showing people of all backgrounds in the ad.
How it failed: Yes, there were people of color in the ad, but a privileged, famous white woman upstaged all of them and seemed to gather unadulterated admiration from everyone of color.
I love when brands reflect the diversity of our country - particularly when portraying youth. Millennials are the most diverse adult generation in America (comprised of 42 percent non-Caucasians) and Plurals/Gen Z are the last American generation to have a Caucasian majority (comprised of about 48 percent non-Caucasians, when looking at the age 5 and under population, it is already a true plurality - Caucasians are less than 50 percent). But again, this should be done in an authentic way and one that doesn’t make people of color look like sidekicks.
To be explicit, at first I was delighted to see a beautiful woman in a hijab prominently featured in the ad, but was disgusted by the end when the direction made it look like she practically worshiped Kendall Jenner. Giving Pepsi the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure nothing was meant by that, but it nonetheless sends a poor message, particularly to people of color. One that surely would have been caught by having people of color on the creative team.
3. Goal: Appeal to young people by incorporating one of the biggest celebrities of their generation, Kendall Jenner.
How it failed: A thin, beautiful, wealthy and privileged white woman was about the worst possible choice for the narrative they were building, not to mention Kendall is over-saturated right now.
I remain unconvinced that celebrity endorsements do that much for brands - particularly for established brands that are household names. People generally have their opinions formed about soft drinks, candy, household products, etc. and I don’t think seeing a celebrity, even one they love, will make them sample the product. I think it’s generally a huge waste of money and quasi-lazy marketing. I guarantee brands would be much better off by investing that money into really great creative and content that is funny, memorable or touching.
There are of course categories and instances where celebrities do make an impact (beauty in particular) but I argue even then it is entirely dependent upon an excellent match of celebrity and brand. For instance, look at the two Jenner sisters within the beauty category. Estée Lauder paid Kendall Jenner millions and millions of dollars to be their ambassadress and the face of the Estée Edit line targeted at Millennials. Kendall is undeniably beautiful and recognizable with a huge social media following but she openly says she's not that into makeup and the Estée Edit line hasn’t been doing all that well. By contrast, her sister Kylie is a self-proclaimed makeup junkie and the lip kits from her own Kylie Cosmetics line (an homage to her famously injected lips) fly off the shelves and her pop-up shop in NYC drew insane crowds of young people waiting for days to get inside.
Kendall or not, a model isn’t a fit for a soft drink (no one believes she actually drinks it. In the 90s we all probably believed Cindy Crawford drank Pepsi, but in 2017 we know soda is laden with sugar and there’s no way any famous model is regularly drinking soda). Furthermore, Kendall isn’t a fit for a activism focused ad. She’s not an activist - if she was, the Kardashian clan would ensure the whole world knew it.
The marketer in me is aghast that these problems weren’t blatantly obvious to everyone on the team. I’m baffled how this got through the many many rounds of approvals and discussions to actually get made, let alone shared. The cynic in me fears a controversial ad may have been planned - Pepsi certainly has been talked about more in the past 48 hours than it was the past year. However, the optimist in me hopes some good can come from this - may other brands learn from Pepsi's mistakes and ensure they don’t make the same ones. And maybe, just maybe, when brands identify issues that matter, they will be motivated to do something that helps the cause rather than trying to exploit it for their own gain.