By Nicholas Ind & Holger Schmidt | Previously published on Branders Magazine
In 2017, Pepsi aired an advertisement featuring the celebrity endorser Kendall Jenner. Tapping into the zeitgeist of political confrontation and street protests, the ad featured marchers holding up placards with generic statements, like ‘join the conversation’, and a line of police officers in everyday uniform. Enter Kendall Jenner, who walks through the protest and offers an ice-cold Pepsi to a policeman. Not surprisingly, the ad was strongly criticised. It not only belittled the very real protests around such issues as Black Lives Matter, but its execution also looked vapid and inauthentic. Initially Pepsi tried to defend what it had done, but within a day, social media pressure led to the ad’s withdrawal. What did Pepsi do wrong?
Co-opting protests and causes isn’t necessarily bad. Brands can be activists for change. And consumers can empathise with brands that take a stance, even when there is a clear commercial benefit to be gained. However, what we have discovered from our research into consumer attitudes is that people have a nose for in-authenticity. They can smell out when a brand lacks integrity and they can also tell when a brand does have a real commitment to a purpose. The brands that get the plaudits are those with clarity of purpose, such as Patagonia or Lush. They show consistency of thought and action over time, born out of their beliefs and a closeness to customers. Pepsi’s mis-step was rooted in the idea that it could take a cultural issue and simply re-frame it with a commercial message, without any further engagement with the underlying issue.
Pepsi’s problem points to a deeper challenge for brands –the diminishing control over brand meaning. Conventional wisdom argues that brand meaning is defined by the organization in the way that it structures and communicates the brand. The brand listens to its customers and other stakeholders through market research. It determines the brand attributes, the advertising, the packaging and the service delivery. However, this is essentially an inside-out process, where others receive what they are given. It’s rather narcissistic and tends to see the world from the brand’s point of view. It can also lead to errors of judgement.
In these networked, participative times, the notion of the all-powerful, inside-out brand is old hat. Brand meaning is not solely within the remit of the brand owner, but rather it is co-created in the interaction between the brand and its stakeholders. Customers do not passively wait for messages from on-high. Rather they discuss their brand experiences, share them in brand communities and voice their opinions to each other on social media. The brand can influence interactions, it can learn together with customers and it can adapt to new circumstances.
This is a richer brand environment – one in which the meaning of the brand is fluid not fixed.
An interesting illustration of this is Nike and its campaign for fallen American football star Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick was the player who knelt during the US national anthem as an anti-racist protest. Nike built a campaign around him with the line ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything’. The campaign generated strong feelings both for and against the brand, which people shared with each other and co-created new brand meanings. However, whether they were pro- or anti- the campaign, most people could see it was consistent with Nike, who could draw on their heritage as an authentic brand that has long championed the causes of athletes. Nike’s campaign is sure-footed, because the company both has a clear and consistent idea of the brand and has the confidence to let it go.
Whereas Nike allowed others to extend and develop its brand, Pepsi’s attempt at activism failed because it tried to control brand meaning.
Image from As Tikitakas