Pepsi’s Self-Inflicted Wound: Trivializing Social Action

Brands must align celebrity values with their message for credibility

Posted Apr 06, 2017

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In trying to crush it with a new add featuring Kendall Jenner, Pepsi gets crushed.
Source: Shutterstock

Pepsi has a long history of pushing the envelope to create product differentiation between the Pepsi brand and Coke.  In many cases, this has worked well.  They have selected celebrities who were also icons for their contribution to popular music.  Few would argue that Michael Jackson and Madonna, and to lesser degree Britney Spears, have had a major social impact on the music business, each ushering in a new perspective, vision and direction.  This was not the case for Jenner, who is famous for being famous, much like Paris Hilton in her 15 minutes of fame.  The difference between Hilton and Jenner is that Jenner is a much better marketer, able to parlay celebrity into a business model with some serious income flow.  This distinction is important, however, because while many people might not have liked Jackson’s or Madonna’s music, most recognized and respected the mark they had made based on artistic vision.  This is not the case for Jenner, who while widely embraced by her fans for fashion and lifestyle tips, has an equal number of haters (or perhaps ignorers) for being a celebrity for celebrity’s sake, following in the footsteps of her infamous older sisters, the Kardashian women.  

The recent Pepsi ad shows Jenner leaving a photo shoot as a model, grabbing a Pepsi and joining a demonstration with overtones of Black Lives Matter.  This was an enormous misstep because it used a shallow celebrity with no history of social advocacy.  We may know of Jenner for a lot of things, but social activism isn't one of them.  Brands must align celebrity values with their message for credibility.  Thus, having Jenner represent a commitment to social action and alluding to Black Lives Matter is bad enough. To further trivialize it by implying that if everyone just had a Pepsi we could all get along not only rings hollow, but it is offensive to those who invest time, emotion, resources and personal safety to address serious issues such as the racial divide.  To make matters worse, Jenner couldn’t quite get a hold on the Pepsi can--a pretty good metaphor for Pepsi’s lack of getting a hold on the sentiment behind movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March in relation to their advertising slogans.

Controversy is not always bad when it comes to marketing.  The level of earned media that Pepsi has received in response could have been a marketer’s dream come true.  However, in this case, the disrespect toward the social movements has made this a viral disaster.  Pepsi pulled the ad, but the trouble with the Internet is that nothing can truly be pulled and erased.  

The ad will not hurt Jenner.  Much like Hilton’s sex tapes, when your goal is to maintain celebrity, any attention helps.  The more clicks the better.  Fans will rally to her defense.  

For Pepsi, however, this has been a significant fail.  Rather than pushing the edge of pop culture to show themselves youthful and “with it,” they have potentially alienated a younger generation known for having high levels of social concern.  Thus, Pepsi's response, a rather limp statement about ‘people coming together,’ makes things worse.  They should admit they totally missed the mark and stepped in it.  Pepsi needs to step up and own it; they need to take aggressive steps to show real support for social issues.  Otherwise, they face the real possibility of not just a boycott, but a serious blow to their credibility as a youthful voice.  

Crises can be opportunities if handled well.  Brands live in the brains of the consumers.  While the damage to Pepsi isn’t lethal, Pepsi has shown themselves to be “tone deaf” to public sentiment--the exact opposite goal when you're trying to build brand equity.  This is the chance to prove that wrong.  Trust takes a long time to build but is very easy to destroy.  What would you advise Pepsi to do?