Bad Pepsi! Bad!
What happens when your brand gets too self important.
Man, soda is something else.
I can’t (and won’t) try to top the on-point commentary about the pitfalls of cultural appropriation and how Pepsi could have obviously benefited from having better representation on their staff or at least an inclusive culture in place for someone, somewhere along the line to feel comfortable enough to say, “hey, this is super offensive.”
Instead I want to look at why something like this gets pitched in the first place.
I can easily see why everyone involved in making this thought it was a good idea, and it’s the exact reason why your company shouldn’t have an in-house agency.
When your entire professional life revolves around one brand, its easy to fall into the trap of believing that the brand that means so much to you means just as much to normal people. I had a friend freelance at Coke in ATL, and one day he brought in leftover Pizza Hut. No branding, just in a Ziploc bag. But someone at Coke somehow knew it was Pizza Hut (which is owned by Yum Brands, which is a spin-off from PepsiCo) and told him if he did it again they’d walk him out of the building and terminate his contract. It remains one of the most insane stories I’ve ever heard, and highlights the cult-like mentality big brands have adopted. (“We aren’t just coworkers, we’re like-minded individuals with a common goal!”)
Advertisers always talk about increasing brand loyalty, and it remains a good goal that helps drive sales. But clients need to accept the fact that no one will (or should) take your brand as seriously as you do. And that’s okay! There’s nothing wrong with being dumb, or a diversion, or even totally frivolous. Not every brand needs to incite passion and encourage evangelism. Including soda (especially soda!).
I get it, though. It’s hard to accept the fact that every day at lunch this exact conversation happens countless times across the country:
“What’ll you have to drink?”
“I’ll take a Coke.”
“Is Pepsi okay?”
“… do you have iced tea?”
It’s easy to overcorrect by getting defensive and saying, No! Pepsi is bigger than a soft drink, it’s about “passion, joy, unbound and uninhibited moments. No matter the occasion, big or small, these are the moments that make us feel alive.” This is a real quote defending the ad. They really believe their soda is a companion to the moments that most define your life (To be fair, when my son was born I sure was glad I had a crisp, smooth, refreshing can of Pepsi on hand to really bring the moment into focus).
This ad (and Pepsi’s defense of it) is a perfect example of what I call “brand myopia”. All the people that had a hand in this Pepsi spot go home at night, turn on the news, and see everything through cola-colored goggles. Many clients do the same thing; their personal identity is built around the company they work for (which isn’t their fault, it’s certainly a trait among Americans to link your self-worth to your work). But as an agency, we are at least removed enough to offer a little perspective and (hopefully) bring clients back down to Earth. Because not every Consumer Packaged Good can win the space race, heal racial tensions and save the whales.
I think one of the most biting criticisms you can give to any creative work is to call it “self indulgent.” It happens when directors make pet-project movies without any oversight, fine artists surround themselves with sycophants, creative directors let their writers write about anything on the company blog, and brands refuse to accept (let alone seek out) constructive criticism of their product or platform.
A brand can’t get valuable perspective if they only produce work from within their own walls. Hire an agency; let them challenge your most dearly held beliefs, and reward their honesty, even if it’s hard to hear.
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