The fizz has gone flat on the latest Pepsi ad and it offers lessons for marketers and communication managers trying to reach their target audiences in a time of rapidly changing consumer attitudes.
The ad featuring reality TV and social media star Kendall Jenner in many ways followed a tried and true Pepsi formula nearly as old as the soft drink itself. Pepsi has always marketed itself as “The Voice of a New Generation.” The slogan may have disappeared years ago, but Pepsi has never wavered from positioning itself as the celebratory fountain drink of youth. Whether it was a young Michael Jackson moon walking across the stage with a can of Pepsi in the 80’s, or teens and twenty-somethings street dancing in Brazil during the 2016 Summer Olympics, Pepsi has consistently marketed youth, fun and independence.
The latest ad didn’t stray far from the recipe. Pepsi found an archetypal pop culture star in Jenner and placed her in an ad that loosely celebrated the social consciousness of millennials. Furthermore, it was launched as a digital-only campaign with the strategy of targeting social media savvy youth who would like and share the video generating buzz.
What could go wrong?
Well, what did go wrong was brilliantly spoofed by Saturday Nigh Live.
Pepsi wasn’t just trying to create buzz about its brand, it was also trying to stimulate a social discussion in a time of high emotional tensions on race and justice. Those are admirable goals. But the ad is guilty of creating an augmented reality that conflicted with the strong memes and images of the protests that occurred from Dallas, to St. Louis, to St. Paul and Minneapolis.
When Black Lives Matter activists last summer protested the police shooting of Philando Castile by shutting down the I-94 freeway in St. Paul, it looked nothing like the Pepsi ad. Many Americans have their own observations and experiences with the tensions mediated through their smartphones or televisions—and the images don’t match. It’s what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. [Figure 1] Presidential advisor Kelly Anne Conway would call them alternative facts. The memes which spread through social media and the news simply didn’t align with the Pepsi’s recreation of the memes in its ad.
What the creators of the Pepsi ad missed is authenticity. It’s also one of the chief insights of marketing to millennials. They want real experiences and real messages, even when they’re trying to be sold a product.
For a lesson in using authenticity to leverage social change, look no further than The Real Thing–Coca-Cola. Coke used its extensive brand equity several years to make a statement about selflessness and sharing, two long-time values of the Coke brand. And they did it with real clips from security cameras around the world.
In another era during the tumultuous 70’s it was Coca-Cola that brought the world together by teaching it to sing. Pepsi tried bringing it together by teaching it how to protest, or make fun of it.
Pepsi thought it had captured buzz in a bottle. It was just the wrong kind of buzz… with no fizz.
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