It’s that time again. Another week has passed, and another controversy has set Twitter ablaze and resulted in a pile-on of insults, memes, and general outrage. At the crosshairs this time? Pepsi, and the brand’s unfortunate (yet incredibly successful and rich) new spokesperson, Kendall Jenner. If you haven’t heard about it already, check out Ad Age’s recap of the ad and the reaction.
An interesting aspect of this whole ordeal is that, at its core, the team at Creators League Studio (Pepsi’s in-house content creation arm in charge of creating the spot) had the right strategy in place for reaching Millennials—embrace the idea of activism. So where did they go wrong? Ad Age, quoting Benjamin Blank, CEO at Uproxx Media Group, sums it up perfectly:
…Pepsi misfired by taking a ‘very broad-stroke approach as opposed to standing for something. It’s like standing for love or happiness, that’s not really a stance.’
In addition to not really having a clear stance, the entire message of Pepsi’s ad was clouded in a fog of overly-complex storytelling. Viewers were shown multiple stories throughout the ad, including a musician, dancer, photographer, and model, who all join a march culminating in a peace offering of a can of Pepsi from the model to a police officer. Because sharing a can of Pepsi is apparently the answer to all of the world’s issues. But rather than taking the easy road and joining the pile-on, let’s try to be positive and see what we can learn from this marketing misstep, especially from a brand messaging perspective.
STAND FOR SOMETHING, BUT KEEP YOUR MESSAGE SIMPLE
It’s natural for brands to want to cram as many themes and ideas into their message to broaden appeal, but doing so is the fastest way to muddy the core idea of your brand or campaign. The classic book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath discusses the idea of simplicity, placing it first on their guide towards more effective communication for brands. The two discuss the importance of distilling your message down to its most important idea at the core.
We recently ran into this example with one of our own clients, Mokafe Coffee. A 100% authentic Haitian coffee, Mokafe prides itself on its deep commitment to Haiti, a country which was once the number one producer of coffee in the world due to its coffee beans’ naturally rich and distinct flavors. Proceeds from every bag benefit the Mokafe Cup of Hope initiative, which is designed to boost production and improve yields for farmers, with the goal of sustaining 40,000 farmers for a year by selling 1 million bags of coffee. In addition, a partnership with the Haitian Christian Mission provides families with basic needs for their children, such as education, healthcare, and nutrition.
Sounds great, right? But after reading that, what do you actually remember about Mokafe? How about this: With every 25 bags of coffee sold, Mokafe can sustain 1 farmer for a year.
Distill the message to its purest form – identify the core. For Mokafe, it was simple. The coffee they sell enables success for Haitian farmers individually and the country’s agriculture collectively. One farmer’s life is changed dramatically with 25 bags of coffee sold; Haiti is changed dramatically with 1 million bags sold.
Compare this example to Pepsi and you can start to see why people reacted so negatively. Simply stating that the brand stands for some vague and broad concept and then showing that stance through multiple vague examples is not effective. For Mokafe, if the brand decided to just state that they give back to charities supporting Haiti and then listed all of the various ways they support the cause, would you care? Maybe slightly, but you probably wouldn’t remember or care enough to convince you to try the coffee. For Pepsi, do you care that they support advocacy, or inclusion, or love? Do you remember all of the characters from their ad? Were you inspired to buy the brand the next time you were in a store?
Stand for something, but keep your idea simple.
AND REMEMBER, LET’S TRY AND BE POSITIVE
Simple messaging, especially around a social issue or noble cause, is a great way to differentiate your brand in the eyes of consumers. Always remember, however, to make sure your message is simple, authentic, and stays true to the brand. Hopefully going forward, brands will use this example to help simplify their messaging and not be discouraged from supporting good causes or speaking up for social issues.
Again, it’s easy to jump on the pile of Twitter outrage and criticize Pepsi, but that does nothing positive (which goes against the whole point of this type of marketing/messaging). Brands should always try to stand for something positive. At the very least, Pepsi tried. We’ll end with a funny, but thought-provoking, quote from Daily Show host Trevor Noah about this whole ordeal:
Now the whole ad was a little tone deaf… but to be honest with you guys, I don’t understand why Pepsi got hammered so hard. In fact, I think all brands need to become more woke. Let’s see Coca-Cola [use its polar bears to] address climate change. …Let’s have a wedding for Mr. and Mr. Clean. …When your country’s divided between black and white, bring them together with Oreos.