Brand Strategist Points Out Pepsi’s Biggest Mistake

Crisis communication strategies have their work cut out for them this month. United Airlines and Press Secretary Sean Spicer are currently mopping up soiled reputations. But April began with a flop of viral proportions: Pepsi’s protest ad.

On April 4, Pepsi released a 2:39 mini movie on YouTube. The story depicted a protest forming in the streets as Kendall Jenner was inspired to join them. She presented a law enforcement officer with a can of Pepsi and seemingly put an end to whatever conflict brought protesters out in the first place. The fictional crowd erupted in cheers, but a very real backlash was building across the internet.

Pepsi was accused of trivializing the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and as a response, pulled the ad and apologized for putting Kendall Jenner in that position. In a statement, Pepsi said “We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.”

A lot went wrong for Pepsi in a short amount of time. Could the brand have avoided this major fallout? Was there any chance its ad concept could have worked? HER Magazine wants our readers to learn from these mistakes, so we talked to Deb Gabor, brand strategist and founder of Sol Marketing. Thanks to her expert insight and critical thinking, we know Pepsi fell flat on its face so you don’t have to.

Let’s start with what went right.

Was there even anything? Gabor says, actually, yes.

“I think the idea and the concept behind the ad was good,” she says. “I think Pepsi was trying to recapture some of the magic of Coca-Cola’s unforgettable 1971 ad.”

Even if you weren’t alive to see the iconic “Hilltop” ad debuted on TV, chances are you’ve heard about it. The messages of inclusivity, equality and joy bottled up in the Coke brand are actually housed at the Library of Congress.

Gabor says Dove’s campaign for real beauty and Cover Girl’s choice to name Ellen DeGenerous a spokesperson are examples of how brands can “transcend the products themselves” and evoke a strong point of view.

“Touching that deep emotional core is what brands do to create a condition of ‘irrational loyalty.’ This is the ideal state for brands,” she says.

When done correctly, brands achieve a lifelong audience. Consumers get to support a company they feel good about. It’s a win-win.

She says Pepsi wasn’t wrong to “put the brand in the context of a story that gives life to the very values the brand shares with its consumers.” But, she agrees the execution of that attempt failed on many fronts.

Here’s what went wrong.

The script

“The spot depicts a whitewashed, inauthentic version of the real-life experience of protests, completely glossing over the significance of what brought people to the streets in the first place,” Gabor says.

Gabor argues Pepsi made a major error by lacking a laser-focus on its point of view of the cause. What were all those people protesting anyway? And which side of Pepsi on? Had the major beverage retailer made that more clear, the storyline might not have seemed so impossible. Social activists might have cheered on the effort to bring awareness to their cause.

Instead, we were left wondering, in what alternative universe could this story have played out. And that made Pepsi look, as so many critics have echoed, “tone deaf.”

The “hero”

“Pepsi might have given itself a shot in the can (pun intended) when it paired Kendall Jenner – who many saw as a disingenuous representative of ANY disenfranchised people – with a slick but sugarcoated protest scene.”

Gabor says the imagery borrowed from #BlackLivesMatter to create the protest setting called for a strong character who evoked an activist’s voice.

Jenner certainly wasn’t the reason the ad tanked, but her presence wasn’t helping either.

The apology

Gabor’s first rule in crisis communications: show concern for the people involved. Pepsi’s statement failed to recognize its insensitivity to “the folks out there who are giving everything they’ve got to raise awareness of the social issues and movements they care most about.”

The brand strategist agrees with the decision to pull the ad. But if your brand ever finds itself in a similar position, showing a genuine concern for the audience will help build back trust with an audience.

And, the big one: the message testing

Perhaps the entire fallout could have been avoided for Pepsi by taking this single piece of advice from Gabor. Even with a script that missed the mark, a poorly matched spokesperson and a botched apology, Pepsi made its biggest mistake by not taking this measure.

“At the very least, I would have tested the ad with actual audiences representing the demographic and psychographic profiles to whom it was targeted!”

We don’t have insight into the development of the ad, but judging by the  widespread negative response, we would venture to guess Pepsi either didn’t effectively test their message or didn’t listen to the response.

“In times like these, when advertising intersects with politics and social media, it becomes increasingly important to do a disaster-check before letting anything see the light of day with real consumers.”

Gabor goes on to say this flop will be just a blip in Pepsi’s highly-diversified advertising strategy. But, she warns that if these mistakes continue, the mega brand will have a true crisis on its hands.

The bottom line? Don’t just watch for opportunities to capitalize off of social causes. Listen to the conversation, add your input and evaluate the response.

Want more expert advice from this branding guru and feisty boss lady? Check out her book Branding is Sex for further insight into her success building winning brands.

Like what you’re reading? Access HER magazine’s monthly publication in iTunes or Google Play – it’s where we feature powerhouse women you can learn from and share exclusive content you won’t find here.

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