Yesterday was not a good day for Pepsi. ICYMI, this week they dropped their latest ad campaign. Featuring Kendall Jenner in a group of protestors, the ad sparked outrage by seemingly trivializing important movements / national issues, suggesting that divides could be bridged simply through a random act of kindness (offering a police officer a can of Pepsi in this case). The internet, including Bernice King, was furious! And Pepsi swiftly pulled the ad, issuing a statement apologizing for any perceived insensitivity.

What went wrong

This is a clear cut case where a noble idea was bastardized by a hard sell. Pepsi’s intent was obvious: they wanted to create an inspirational piece that projected a world where people unite to resolve issues, and where different points of view could be freely expressed in the pursuit of a greater good. The execution of that vision was horrible.

The ad pulled its punches in every way: it avoided the ugly reality of what it means to fight against social injustice by depicting protesters as a lighthearted group of socialites; it danced around real issues in a transparent attempt not to alienate viewers, instead demonstrating a lack of belief in any core value set; and worst of all, it took an aspirational premise and rather than offering a moving climax, traded it for a tasteless push of the product. Ultimately, an otherwise beautiful presentation of interconnecting people and stories was all ruined by a weakness in overarching narrative and a failure to adhere to the critical component of a belief-based marketing strategy—stick to the core message and let your brand go along for the ride.

How it could have ended

Despite a number of flaws, the outcome for Pepsi could have been significantly different with one shift in approach:

As the crowd of protestors drew near the police force, and nervous trepidation began to express itself on their faces, Kendall could have approached the police officers and offered them a hand (or a hug). Inspired by her boldness, the crowd of protestors could all have begun to introduce themselves to the police, expressing their pains to one another and listening to each others’ points of view. And all of this could have been tied together by a simple statement that linked brand messaging with social values: “Bold speaks, and bold listens. Live bold.” And if they’d kept the product in the shadows while letting the audience connect to the spirit of Pepsi instead, they could have fulfilled their uplifting intentions while reflecting positively on the brand.

As the creative team behind brand videos, we see challenges like this often. But at the end of the day, the message Pepsi wanted to share was honorable. If they’d better respected the poignancy of that underlying idea, and allowed the product to play second-fiddle to it, the reaction—and the results—could have been entirely different.

What we can all learn from it

Don’t let a sales agenda get in the way of a powerful story—if you prioritize content the rest will follow. And sometimes, playing it a little too safe is the riskiest move you can make.


Written by Jenko Kent
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