At a crisis communications conference this week in the Dominican Republic, I spoke about how 83 percent of companies’ reputational crises are self-inflicted. Yesterday, Pepsi proved me right!
By now, just about everyone has seen the two-and-a-half-minute ad where young people are marching through the streets holding protest signs; Kendall Jenner rips away her blonde wig to join the movement and grabs a can of Pepsi. She hands the Pepsi over to a cop, winning him over. The ad basically attempts to say that "Pepsi can stop protests and create peace”. A very tall order, I must say.
Pepsi was trying to jump on the bandwagon of recent brand activism, sparked by Starbucks, Airbnb, Google and others who took a decisive stance against President Trump’s January ban on refugee admission and entry to the U.S. by seven Muslim-majority countries. Even though these companies faced criticism and some backlash, in the end they won people’s respect.
For Pepsi, its attempt to “project a global message of peace, unity and understanding” was short-lived. After an onslaught of criticism and viral mockery, Pepsi pulled the commercial just one day after its release, apologizing and conceding that it “missed the mark”.
So what happened to Pepsi? Why did the Kendall Jenner commercial backfire so badly?
Contrary to Airbnb and Starbuck’s Super Bowl commercials and ensuing communications efforts, Pepsi violated three of today’s golden communications rules, lacking authenticity; being insensitive and having no substance.
1. Lacked authenticity by not or being aligned to its spokesperson’s history and values.
Kendall Jenner might be a hot celeb, but there is absolutely no history whatsoever of her advocating or being actively involved in defending any cause, especially those pertaining to inclusion or minorities. Additionally, she’s a white, blonde, affluent, born-into-celebrity person – not really the epitome of struggle and civil unrest.
2. Showed insensitivity and lack of understanding for the struggles of minority groups – the audience they were so desperately trying to reach. The ad is an ill-fated illustration of how “easily” a symbolic Pepsi can dissipate the very oppression that’s being decried at a civil protest --where so many have been arrested, beaten and even killed even this year alone.
Bernice King, the daughter of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, joined in, posting a photo of her father stating, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi”. The video was released on the 49th anniversary of King’s assassination (April 4th).
3. The ad focuses on style but has no substance. In a politically-charged time such as this one, brand activism must be clear and decisive. As Fast Company’s Jeff Beer states, “Pepsi has sidestepped the issue completely by creating an ad that tries to tap into all the emotion of dissent, with none of the conviction. What is the message here? What are they actually standing up for? Maybe the brand is telling us by its choice of soundtrack. But more realistically, it’s half-stepping, and at a time like this, that lack of clarity reeks of all style, no substance”.