Don’t Be Like Pepsi – Lessons from a Cause Marketing Mega-Blunder

May 5th, 2017

If you have been active on the Internet to at least some degree over this past April, there’s a chance you’re familiar with the infamous Pepsi protest commercial. The ad features the supermodel and Kardashian half-sibling, Kendall Jenner, abandoning a glamorous photo shoot to charge to the front lines of an unidentified protest to hand one of several police officers doing crowd control a Pepsi can. After he accepts the beverage, a photographer takes a picture, everyone celebrates, and it seems the issue has been resolved. Whether this was the worst ad or perhaps the greatest ad idea ever is up for debate.

You could argue that the commercial trivialized the significance of protesting in American society’s current sociopolitical climate. It could be seen that Pepsi tried, and failed, to appeal to the millennial audience they were targeting. However, you could also say that it may have unintentionally been the best ad ever. When you watch the ad in all its absurdity, you will find it hard to forget about the Pepsi gaffe whenever a new civilian protest appears on the news.

The commercial sparked some widespread criticism on social media from both the public and notable figures such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Bernice King, who posted a picture of her father protesting with the caption “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.” Similar images from other social media users also emerged, with people posting photoshopped pictures of historical protests and inserting Pepsi-related imagery with captions that made fun of the failed marketing campaign.

The soft drink mega-brand replied to King, affirming they did not mean to disrespect people who protest for the sake of justice. Pepsi also attached a message claiming they were “trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding,” and admitted “Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize.” They have since removed the content and apologized to Jenner for putting her in a presumably embarrassing position.

Here, Pepsi made an effort to appear cause-conscious and came up short… very short. The ad presented an overgeneralized representation of protesting and downplayed its significance to the audience it attempted to connect with.

Don’t be like Pepsi. When you’re gearing up to launch your own cause marketing campaign, keep these lessons from the soft drink mega-brand in mind:

Align with a Specific Cause

Pepsi’s primary mistake was overgeneralizing the multiple protests that have appeared in the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election. They failed to identify with any specific cause, which further added to the confusion. They wanted to promote peace and unity, so why not feature an actual anti-violence organization to substantiate the message?

If you want your brand to take action and get socially involved, pick a specific cause to align with. Send a percentage of proceeds to a local or national charity that has a mission that you as a decision-maker within your organization can align with.

Endorsements are not Always the Answer

Pepsi’s decision to hire Kendall Jenner for this advertisement might have a few scratching their heads. Sure, she is part of a rather famous family that has dominated the reality TV sphere with multiple shows, but what has she done to establish herself as a visible advocate for a cause? Nothing comes to mind. If you’re going to partner with anyone who has any degree of fame for your cause marketing effort, make sure that their own values and personal narrative aligns with everything else.

Though you may not always have the connections to arrange for an A-list celebrity to endorse your campaign, you may be able to recruit a well-known social media influencer, a popular YouTuber, or a prominent public figure. However, if you decide to pursue this route, select someone that can identify with the cause in a meaningful way.

Don’t Whitewash the Issues

Treating protesting as a cause in itself is what resulted in Pepsi’s failure to connect with the audience they were trying to reach. Though they show a few people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds participating in the events of the commercial, they did not construct a narrative that felt authentic or sensitive to one specific cause. In the real world, protesting itself is a method for taking action, but it is not a cause within itself.

If you feel your brand cannot deliver a message of substance that could drive conversation and engage those who interact with your campaign, it may be best to not risk whitewashing or glazing over important issues that your target audience might identify with.

If you don’t want to take the risk of launching a large-scale marketing campaign, there are other ways to get involved in a cause that your brand identifies with. Donating money to private organizations that rely on external funding is useful, as well as volunteering your time to help people you care about. You can still promote those initiatives and document them for your brand’s social media following.

Authenticity Doesn’t Go Unnoticed

Now that the ad has come and gone, what Pepsi really missed the mark on was authenticity. In a market where brands are constantly at war with one another to produce the best content, an authentic message will help your brand stand out the most. Conversely, an oversimplified, less authentic message may result in your brand gaining attention in the wrong way.

To ensure the content you’re producing is authentic, select a cause that can tie directly to your brand’s own narrative and show that your organization is involved. Taking up a cause requires meaningful action, so make sure your team is ready to participate.

Want to develop and enact your own cause marketing campaign? Contact us today to see how we can help.

Michael Bateman

Michael Bateman handles social media, content creation, and media relations needs for multiple accounts at Springboard. When he's not working in the office or sitting in grad classes, you can find him blogging, exploring Asbury Park, or watching New York Islanders games.

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