Pepsi and the dangers of politicising brands

It’s two weeks since the launch of Pepsi’s controversial advert featuring Kendall Jenner easing racial tension with a cold beverage but the story is still fizzing away.

The soft drink giant quickly pulled the ad, which, as you no doubt know, depicted the 21-year-old joining a group of protesters marching through the streets and waving non-specific placards. The group soon comes across a line of policemen blocking their path. Up steps brave Kendall to give one of the officers a can of Pepsi. He drinks it, smirks at his colleague, and the crowd goes wild.

Accusations of trivialising the clashes between police and Black Lives Matter protesters during last year’s demonstrations led to an immediate social media backlash and millions of memes and gifs.

Pepsi’s first reaction was to apologise “for putting Kendall Jenner in this position”. Hardly likely to calm the situation down.

“Pepsi has tried to take a view on something and gotten it very wrong,” says Ardi Kolah, author of Improving the Performance of Sponsorship. “With their apology they have missed the point as to why people were angry.”

Perhaps Pepsi was right to be concerned. Reports claim Jenner is ‘traumatised’ by events and is apparently threatening to make any journalist that asks her about it ‘forever persona non grata’, all helping to keep the story going.

While the negative publicity continues, Kolah wonders what was going through the minds of the Pepsi in-house team that produced the three-minute movie.

“If you’re Pepsi there are a couple of factors in play here. Firstly, you don’t sell as much as your rival Coca-Cola. The second is that in terms of the tools you use Coca-Cola have hovered up many of the biggest platforms for selling its brand – including the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games.

“So, what do you do? You’ve got to do things that are a bit different to draw attention to your brand.”

Pepsi has a pretty good track record in this department. Adverts like The Choice of a New Generation are part of their brand heritage. However, this time around the attempt to engage with the values of the current new generation has backfired.

Jenner is not well-known for celebrity-activism and the message within the ad’s narrative is vague: “What is the policeman supposed to be persuaded of by the can of Pepsi?” asks Kolah. “The cause, what is it? This is about the celebrity.

“The problem with celebrities is that they can overshadow the message you’re trying to deliver. This was a sledgehammer attempt to gain interest from a group of young people who follow this individual to say: ‘Hey, she drinks Pepsi’.”

However, we live in an age where brands are expected to speak out on social issues. Whether it’s poor working conditions in factories, global warming or President Trump it is not uncommon for brands or their senior executives to take a stand on a social or political issue.

“Brands in the past used to keep their heads down but they can’t do that now. Their consumers and even their employees expect them to speak out,” says Kolah.

“It’s not inappropriate for a brand to have a voice in the way they didn’t in the past but they have to be very careful how they use that power.”

You can forgive firms for getting it wrong but having a super model recreate one of the most iconic protest images of the age feels exploitative.

“This was a massive error of judgement,” says Kolah. “They are not showing solidarity with anyone, they are in fact, denigrating what people have been doing. It shows insensitivity with what is going on in the world.”

Image from Pepsi Global via YouTube

Rob Smith

The editor of Influence, I'm a reporter with a background in business journalism.

Posted in Editor's Picks, Marketing, Public Relations Tagged with: ,

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