Brands Open Mouths, Insert Own Feet

Cause marketing is a major brand strategy today, even more so as millennials have grown to be a desirable mass market. Millennials are notably more aware of corporate social responsibility than previous generations. They are often personally active in causes, and expect their employers to be socially responsible. That expectation extends to brands and services they purchase. And millennials are avid social media users who do not hesitate to call out companies and brands that fail to live up to cause-related claims.

Insular and Insincere

The Ad Contrarian, Bob Hoffman, calls this “virtue hustling.” Like greenwashing, it is often a deliberate attempt to use causes or political stances to sell product or reset negative perceptions following some really bad publicity. [link to When Green Claims Go Toxic] A prime example of virtue hustling is Pepsi’s now infamous Kendall Jenner protest ad, which (lamely) attempted to become a part of a cultural moment. Shamelessly playing off Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and other recent protest movements, the ad made a march look like a street party. “Protest” signs reading “#JoinTheConversation” just added to the disconnect. Seriously, no protester, pretty white chick or otherwise, could approach a adrenalized, fully armed SWAT team with an object in her hand without being shot, clubbed, pepper-sprayed, or at least forced to the ground and cuffed. (Now that would have made for some authenticity.)

Beyond the privileged-white-girl-saves-the-world-again optics, Pepsi seems to believe that we can all “come together” by passing out cans of soda. The whole plot—white model/fashionista sees cute guy in otherwise uninteresting march and suddenly “gets woke”—is so condescendingly dismissive of the passion of many of the protesters currently exercising their right to civil action, one watches it mouth agape, marveling that anyone thought this was actually a good idea. Pepsi was forced to pull the ad a few hours after releasing it.

Thank goodness, no ad agency was involved—Pepsi’s in-house content division claimed responsibility. But while the industry pats itself on the back for no creating this awful ad (a different sort of virtue hustling known as being self-righteous), their claims that no agency would have let this ad reach the public are dubious at best. I strongly suspect that those who created the Pepsi ad were predominantly white, upper middle class professionals with zero experience in protests or movements, violent or otherwise. That lack of diversity is found in ad agencies all over the USA and in many other Western nations. It contributes to many ads that miss their target audience, and trigger all kinds of offensiveness claxons. Even probably-well-researched efforts, like the Nivea “White is Purity” Facebook ad of a few weeks ago, can go awry when the publishers forget that, in today’s world, a targeted message can go global and send the wrong message to a broader audience—and engage audiences you really don’t want associated with your brand.

A Little Coke Envy?

Pepsi may have wished to recreate the mojo of its chief competitor, Coca-Cola, whose 1971 “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” TV spot still resonates among baby boomers as capturing a cultural moment. Bill Backer of Coke’s then-agency partner, McCann Erickson, says the idea was founded on an insight arrived at while stuck in an Irish airport after a cancelled flight, and watching stranded international passengers striking up acquaintance over bottles of Coke. It was all about “keeping each other company for awhile.” Backer says. He jotted the first lyrics of the song on the back of a napkin and carried the idea home. Roger Greenaway, one of the musicians who helped develop the jingle, said it conveyed a feeling of hope during a dark era, with the Vietnam War dragging on, and the flower-children trying to promote peace, love and understanding. The ad did not suggest that Coke was a solution to a social issue—just a “tiny bit of commonality between all peoples,” as Backer put it.

Pepsi’s ad reinforced perceptions that the privileged have no idea what motivates and concerns activists, and have zero understanding of the real-world problems so many people face—the opposite of finding commonality. Don’t even get me started on the choice of famous-for-being-famous Kendall Jenner as the “heroine.”

Third-Party Voice

Questions of agency diversity and targeting snafus aside, I would suggest there is another culprit in how this ad came to be: an insular culture where diverse voices are not given authority to speak truth to power. This may have allowed a dubious creative vision to push past any dissenters. (I hope there were dissenters, anyway.) That is the strongest argument for working with an ad agency across all of your marketing channels: agencies can bring a more objective, third-party view, encouraging creative decisions to balance internal cultural and bureaucratic choices.

How do brands and their agencies practice preventive creativity? First, concepts need to pass creative testing. If the concept gets pushback from groups outside the creators, give serious thought to whether the idea and message are strong enough to move forward.

Outside voices include other departments or offices within the company or agency; outside PR and media people; even family and friends. Short of a focus group of actual target-audience consumers, these outside voices become your best bet for avoiding a brand crisis from clumsy or off-brand messaging.

Next: NEVER use cause marketing to sell product. It is essential to conduct repeated gut checks on how authentic a cause-related ad is, and whether you are focusing on the cause… or just trying to use that cause to peddle soda.

All Brands Are Vulnerable

Pepsi, please… no more bro’ marketing. Bring some women, people of color and real-world focus groups into play. Your target audience was live and vocal on Twitter and social media. Pay attention and learn from this. And every other brand out there smirking about Pepsi’s fail? You are up next. Tim Nudd, creative editor for Adweek, writes, “…post-Pepsi, all brands should take a fresh look at their protest ads and other cause marketing and ask how much of it is real, heartfelt and beneficial—and how much could be seen as opportunistic.”

The world is having a political moment; the upheaval is bleeding into marketing and must now be a daily consideration in creative decisions. Cause marketing must be more than mere strategy. Brand support of a cause must be whole-hearted and sincere, or that brand could become the next Pepsi. Agencies: increase your sensitivity around cause marketing and the cultural zeitgeist. You must be the sherpas who guide clients over the treacherous terrain of our newly “woke” marketing environment.


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