How Pepsi Can Learn to be a Channel of Change

The book, Beyond Advertising, offers a five-pronged model for meaningful communication

As a consumer insight analyst, I am always reminded that the consumer’s voice is truly in charge. Beyond Advertising by Catharine Findiesen Hays and Yoram Wind reminds marketers that heightened consumer control is the future of the industry and provides models to help them prepare for the shift.

Though the book offers many important tips, I was mostly struck by the early chapters, which reminded me of the firestorm caused by the Pepsi “Live for Now” campaign. Beyond Advertising asks, “What are the roles and responsibilities of brands as global challenges grow louder and more insistent, and what does this have to do with advertising?” We live in a time where consumers base their decision to interact with and ultimately purchase a brand based in part on the company’s stance on social issues and its societal impact. A 2012 Nielsen survey found that 66 percent of consumers worldwide prefer to spend their money with brands that have programs and initiatives that benefit society, and 46 percent are willing to pay extra to support those brands.

The view is that corporations can either solve the problem or be part of the problem and consumers now expect their money to be used for the betterment of the world. With this expectation comes brand loyalty or brand resentment. Pepsi had a great idea to respond to this social unrest with a call for love and peace, but unfortunately that’s not the message many consumers took away in this sensitive political climate.

My generation has been at the forefront of the fight for inclusion and changing the world so, as a Millennial, I assumed that brands would conduct research that would tell them how to properly interact with their consumers. Numbers couldn’t tell us how consumers would have reacted to the campaign, but their words could. One Beyond Advertising model in particular, RAVES (Relevant and Respectful, Actionable, Valuable, Exceptional Experience, Share Worthy Storytelling), outlines how advertisements, such as “Live for Now” could connect to the consumers’ personal beliefs in a way that is beneficial for the audience, society, and brand without causing strife or outrage.

“Live for Now” was very RELEVANT; the social climate has grown more tense over the past few years and high-profile protests have become very common. The ad, however, was not respectful of the affected communities. Some complained that the protest depicted looked like a festival more than a march for peace. The use of Kendall Jenner added the perception that the ad was more mocking than genuine. While she is very relevant, she has never been affiliated with any form of resistance, violent or peaceful. Perhaps if this was a traditional Pepsi commercial she would have worked, but in a spot that attempted to address social unrest, it appeared disconnected and tone deaf.

In order to be RESPECTFUL, a “consideration of people’s needs and state of mind is at the core…” To get the core of the consumer’s needs and state of mind, brands need to directly communicate with their audience as people, not targets. Beyond Advertising suggests we think about the “ins”: intrusive, inconvenient, insulting, invasive, inappropriate, inconsiderate, incomplete, indiscriminate, and insensitive. With the “ins” in mind, put yourself in the consumer’s shoes and think about how this communication would make you feel if it was intended to speak to you. In order to truly empathize with their audience, brands must know who those people are and what is important to them. This kind of understanding can only come about by going beyond big data and talking to consumers.

The protest portrayed in “Live for Now”

Once a consumer senses respect, they are more likely to perceive the advertising to be ACTIONABLE and share campaigns as well as think and speak about the brand more positively. Consumers can make or break a campaign, as seen with “Live for Now.” Although the spot featured signs that asked consumers to “join the conversation” but Pepsi had never lent itself to this conversation prior to that. It donates to many charities, but none of them, as far as anyone knows, are the organizations behind Black Lives Matter or the Women’s March, whose protests clearly inspired the imagery used in the campaign. This signaled a lack of authority on social issues which compromised the brand’s authenticity — an important point of interaction for Millennial and Gen Z consumers. In this instance, Pepsi may have been part of the problem in consumers’ eyes, rather than part of the solution.

Additionally, brands should always ask themselves why would someone want to consume this content, not what the content says. The brand’s message doesn’t matter if the consumer does not want to hear it or will misconstrue the intention. The VALUE of the message is in the consumer’s hands, as they are the ones ultimately consuming it. Though Pepsi’s message was to send love, social injustice cannot be solved by handing a cop a can of Pepsi and consumers made sure to remind them of that. Starbucks suffered a similar fate in 2015 with #RaceTogether, which they rectified by setting up initiatives in Ferguson, Missouri, to connect with the segment of the population that inspired the initial campaign.

This also connects to the overall EXPERIENCE of an advertisement. “Live for Now” did not feel personal or specific. Who was Pepsi trying to talk to? Who was its audience aside from young people who protest? A march for peace and love seemed out of place when the internet shows consumers a much different reality. In a day where one can easily stumble upon a video of riot police roughing up seemingly peaceful protesters, Jenner easing the tension by handing police a can of soda created an insensitive and confusing experience rather than an exceptional one. When it comes to being a SHARE WORTHY STORY, Beyond Advertising points out that “delight falls flat if not connected to a story that can withstand the scrutiny of the empowered individual. Is the story manufactured or is it based on something that employees would tell and tell with pride? Does the story connect with what is important to an audience, as well as with each member of the board of directors?” This reiterates the importance of authenticity. In order for a communication to be share worthy, it has to be believable to the consumer and true to the brand. Without that, there is no purpose in sharing other than to ridicule.

Moving forward, I suggest that brands be careful of the social causes and issues they chose to align with since certain causes, especially politically sensitive ones, put them more at risk. While some segments are sure to support a brand, the online backlash and potential for a boycott is often not worth the leap. A study from Ipsos revealed that 25% of American consumers have boycotted brands and services because of their political leanings. As young people continue to lean towards a more inclusive world, it would not be wise to align with someone or something that is perceived as divisive or polarizing. This can be said for the Black Lives Matter and Women’s March movements, another reason why Pepsi’s choice to depict a protest could have been seen as problematic by some. On the other hand, the campaign may have come too soon for others; who knows other than the consumer. In order to be the driving force behind fundamental cultural, social, environmental, and geopolitical change, brands must conduct the right research and genuinely connect with the audience or suffer the wrath of social media wielding consumer. With the help of Beyond Advertising and models such as RAVES, I believe that brands can avoid such pitfalls and successfully deliver campaigns that benefit them and society while appealing to the concerns of consumers.