My immediate reaction when I saw the pulled Pepsi video was to cringe. It physically hurt.
If you haven’t heard about the mess Pepsi got themselves into, you can see what all the fizz is about (okay, that was the last pun in this post, I promise), here. Or, better still, check out this detailed post mortem by Eric Thomas and then come back.
With B2B marketers being encouraged to take a leaf out of B2C marketing practices, it’s also important for us to take stock when it goes oh so wrong for the other half.
In short, we need talk to about authenticity in B2B marketing, and why your audience dislikes inauthentic bullshit.
A lot of your audience does give a flying whatsit about authenticity
Everyone knows brands are chasing authenticity so they can advertise to millennials. That’s why Pepsi created this crapfest. But being authentic isn’t just a box you need to tick if you want to market to people of my generation.
The generation before Generation Y, Generation X, likes authenticity too. Radix Communications founder (and Gen Xer) Fiona Campbell-Howes pointed this out to me all the way back in Good Copy, Bad Copy episode 26.
Considering that Gen X grew up in a period with huge social, cultural, technological, and economic change. And they bestowed the world with such honest or brutal examinations of 20th century life as Office Space, Boyz n the Hood and Trainspotting… it makes sense they’d care about authenticity.
And here’s the thing: Gen X and Y make up the majority of people in your workplace right now. These are your potential advocates and buyers, and they appreciate not being bullshitted to.
Don’t be like Pepsi
I’m kind of hoping that at this point you understand why you shouldn’t be like Pepsi. But in case Eric’s painful point by point breakdown of their ad just wasn’t enough for you…
You can’t fake authenticity.
People dislike it when brands try to portray themselves as down with the kids, when clearly, they aren’t. In the case of Pepsi, they co-opted recent protest movements in a way that looked sleazy and insincere. It was pure pastiche (I mean that in Fredric Jameson’s use of the word “pastiche”) in the way it failed to understand what it had sought to copy.
Or as Nicola Kemp, Head of Features for Campaign, told the Guardian: you can’t co-opt politics without taking a stand.
Instead, be more like Misha Collins
The same week that Pepsi messed up, I watched a college lecture given by Supernatural actor, and philanthropist, Misha Collins.
Collins’ lecture was called “Conquer the World” and it was about social media marketing and marketing in general:
Collins has quite the fanbase on both Twitter and Facebook, which he often engages to support charitable and political causes. As he explained in his lecture, behind his quirkiness, there is strategy in much of what he posts.
A lot of what he said resonated with me, and not because I’m Supernatural superfan, but because he talked much about the kinds of things I try to bring to the marketing I do for Radix.
Collins pointed out the need for brands on social to avoid sounding “hollow”, like there’s no substance to them. He also explained that whatever you’re selling: “Only pitch with passion”.
Obviously, we can’t all be completely like Misha Collins, but it’s obvious that Pepsi failed with this.
To be authentic, a B2B brand should…?
Being authentic doesn’t mean highlighting a cause without taking a stand on it, or being wacky for the sake of being wacky (unless that is part of your brand, like it is for Misha Collins).
To be authentic, a brand needs to present itself without a shred of pastiche in the imagery or language it uses. The way Pepsi co-opted current protest movements for that ad showed no understanding of what those movements were about, the social tensions around them, making it hollow and yet brimming with appropriation.
But mostly a brand needs to be itself. Whatever image a brand has created, whatever voice it has, it needs to be consistent. Like my colleague Katy has pointed out: tone can change from situation to situation; voice remains true.
(Rebranding is the exception, but then a brand still needs to not appear like it’s talking out of its arse.)
Three handy pointers on how to be authentic in B2B marketing
It’s been argued that the situation with Pepsi was because the campaign had been produced in-house. I can’t say for certain that this played a role in it, so I’m not going to dictate and say you can’t use your own people.
So, just in case you feel like that there is a chance that your marketing could somehow disappear into a whirlpool of seething inauthenticity, here’s three tips on how not to let that happen:
1. Be honest, perhaps even… insanely honest
(I’m borrowing this one from Radix agency client Velocity Partners.)
Admitting to the faults and shortcomings of what you’re selling goes a hell of a lot of the way to building trust with potential customers. Acting like there’s nothing wrong with what you sell, that everything is 100% peachy, is going to make your brand seem inauthentic. Nothing is perfect. Own that fact.
(Exposing your “soft parts”, as Velocity points out, has the added benefit of deterring the people who are never going to be satisfied with your product and will never buy from you. It stops everyone going through a massive waste of time.)
2. Listen to your inner cynic
Is there a voice of niggling doubt in your head, saying that the campaign you’re working on is insincere and going to piss people off? That it’s bullshit? A quivering mess of pastiche?
Then you need to put on the brakes and really think about it. If there is still doubt in your mind: bring in a fresh pair of eyes to be your cynic for you. Sometimes we can’t trust ourselves to see through the BS.
(Self-deprecating Brits, and/or people who have studied post-modernism as cultural theory tend to be good at this. Or maybe that’s just my experience.)
3. Be passionate (don’t just say you are)
You can’t half-ass being authentic, and being authentic means passionately believing in what you’re selling. But if you don’t believe in it: potential and existing customers will smell it a mile off when they encounter your marketing.
Like Misha Collins said:
“Only pitch with passion.”
(If you’re unsure how to get people like your copywriters to be enthusiastic about what they’re writing, then I am shamelessly pointing you the way of this episode of Good Copy, Bad Copy that talks about how to fire up your writers.)
A huge chunk of your potential and existing customers hate inauthentic bullshit. So:
Don’t co-opt things you don’t stand for. Don’t wear a mask. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not.
Don’t be like Pepsi.
Emily King is content marketing manager for Radix Communications, and founder and co-host of, long running, geek culture podcast Nerds Assemble. She is a mega fan of the Supernatural TV series, and if you should dare to follow her on Twitter then be prepared for wall-to-wall Supernatural tweets on Wednesday evenings.
This LinkedIn Pulse post, while referencing content from Radix Communications, is Emily’s own musings. If you want to read/listen more about B2B copywriting, then check out the Radix blog.
(This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)