April 21, 2017

Brands and Social Activism – Avoiding the Pepsi Problem

Pepsi’s recent advert, featuring Kendall Jenner defusing a protest standoff with a Pepsi, is already a strong contender for the most ridiculed and reviled spot of the year. From the guy who has to hold her wig, to the sweat-drenched cello player, to the generic placards, every scene of this mawkish millennial mood-film ends up building towards an unfortunately tone-deaf crescendo.

The post-mortem for Pepsi has been public and unrelenting. But is there anything brands can learn from the debacle? Many in the advertising industry have put the failure down to the in-house production team but as creative people we must all realise that just as good ideas can come from anywhere, so can bad ones. Indeed, this blog suggests that the problem for Pepsi was not one of process but of character, and in order to understand where they went wrong it’s useful to cast our minds back to the age of the great Victorian philanthropists.

In 1851 Richard and George Cadbury took over their father’s business as Britain’s largest chocolate manufacturer. Their greatest innovation was not on the production line or in the recipe book but for their staff. They built an entire village with schools, hospitals and housing for Cadbury employees. So when Cadbury talked about the good they did for others, people believed it and they could demonstrate it.



George Cadbury

119 years later in Yosemite Park California, two climbers created new crampons and pitons that didn’t scar the rockfaces they climbed. This turned into Patagonia, one of the most successful outdoor companies of modern times. Their employees to this day can work barefoot, go surfing in the afternoon and all of their production is sustainably designed not to harm the environment. In 2011, Patagonia produced its first advertising campaign “don’t buy this jacket”. 40 years later their brand stood for exactly the same principles as in 1970’s. It was wildly successful because people could believe it was coming from Patagonia.

There’s a phrase, “storydoing”, that is popular in the industry at the moment. Most recently publicised by VCCP founder Charles Vallance. It means brands should live their stories, not merely make something and tell people about it. So, what can the Victorian philanthropists, some climbers and Charles Vallance teach us about how not to make mistakes like Pepsi? Brands need to be the stories they tell. Pepsi didn’t create a successful social activism campaign because they didn’t have anything in their DNA to support that message. Social activism is laudable, but brands must make sure they have the credentials to support it.

Posted by

0 comments Add a comment

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *