OPINION7 April 2017

Falling flat?

FMCG North America Opinion

Pepsi’s most recent – and now withdrawn – ad has been subject to widespread ridicule that has seen it labelled 'tone deaf'. Nadim Sadek of TransgressiveX looks at whether it failed as comprehensively as initially thought. 

In pretty well every category nowadays, there is a penalty-free substitute for your brand. We live in a time of choice, so the model of making something attractive (strong proposition), available (appropriate distribution) and affordable (pricing it right) has been supplanted by one which depends on creating the greatest inclination to interact. It’s about getting the quid pro quo right, where people give you their time, their money and, if you’re lucky, their advocacy. In return, the brand gives a product or service that elevates it beyond the generic, and beyond its competitive set.

This idea of this mutual exchange with consumers is subtle and complex. It needs better measures, measured better than the legacy systems and models we have used. It involves judging whether a brand shows empathy with you, behaves in a manner to which you can relate, has integrity, is transparent about its actions and conduct, and a host of other things. In fact, there are 16 of these universal drivers, and they apply in every category, deriving from the theory of social exchange.

It is this subtlety that Pepsi has singularly failed to attend to with success, in its now-withdrawn commercial around ‘activism’. Many have already commented on how clearly its hems were showing – from the supposedly subliminal colour-ways of the brickwork, to the gauche adoption of language such as ‘join the conversation’ that should be heard only in business meetings, to the shoe-horning-in of celebrity talent, continuing a conveyor built of ingested fame going back to Michael Jackson.

Of course, the noise around it has been resoundingly loud. It is unlikely Pepsi has ever had more attention. Column inches and interviews in traditional media, every utterance of social media; they’ve all howled at the brand for its uncultured attempt to communicate in terms which we all were able immediately to identify, but not accept in this form. Audiences don’t automatically disparage brands for attempts at activism – not when done well.

Is any civilised person against ethnic diversity in brand representations? Of course not. Is addressing the current tornado of civil, military and national brutality wrong? Not in any way. But the ham-fistedness of the brand’s attempted manipulation of a knowing, cultured audience’s sentiments, has exposed that it’s really not only the message, but also the medium, that really counts. Because the manner in which you speak often says even more than the words you utter. 

Let’s consider the 16 drivers, pre- and post-‘Jump’ – the ad campaign’s official title. It shows that advertising is still incredibly powerful as a manifestation of a brand.

On six of the 16 measures – a mixture of rational and emotional (see below box) – one could argue that Jump has done a good job for Pepsi. Notably, they are the older-fashioned ones. It is really the scale of its failure to correctly judge today’s more complex and sophisticated consumer interactions that has so badly let it down. There should be no gap between brand-boardroom and consumer kitchen. We know enough about them, can measure them, and have sufficient subtlety and delicacy in understanding them, to pre-empt any such gross errors of judgement. 

One guesses that this misadventure resulted from an internal team too keen to prove its worth, unfiltered by the stinging cold air one meets when sharing thoughts and constructs with non-invested people. There are probably lots of lessons for us all to learn, and let me not be the first to cast a stone – I’ve misjudged plenty in my time. Interaction is what we all need. And a greater inclination to interact is the definition of success for a brand.

Nadim Sadek is CEO of TransgressiveX


4 years ago  |  2 likes

Of all of the commentaries I've seen post Pepsi's taking down of their new ad, this one by Nadim is probably the one that has made me think the most. Of course, it is easy to see why Pepsi's misjudged advert attracted so much criticism on social media. However, I can't help feeling that if it were done in the right way, perhaps even by another brand, the narrative could actually have been quite moving. The key word for me in all this is authenticity. One can't help but feel a certain distaste for the brand jumping on a topical political bandwagon without having the necessary credentials to back up this particular approach. That said, advertising has long been seen as a short cut for high-spending brands to quickly embed themselves into whatever the latest generational movement may be. Pepsi just got involved at the wrong moment. It has had zero dialogue within the political landscape giving it no natural context to suddenly proclaim itself as the brand for progressive inclusion. That said, it could easily have forged some sort of credibility in this area by publicly supporting specific causes that resonate to their demographic. Either through their social media presence or via experiential marketing, Pepsi had the means, budget and more importantly the audience to justify a progressive brand positioning that could have paved the way for the Jump ad. Sadly this wasn't done. And now the brand must pick itself up, dust off the embarrassment and start again. Which is why Coca-Cola's alignment with "happiness" will always be seen as a universally safe marketing base. After all, happiness can rarely be controversial. Great post Nadim.

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4 years ago  |  1 like

Thanks for your perspective, Rax. 'Having a right to speak' is certainly something which brands need to evaluate - for contextual legitimacy, and scope. Red Bull, for example, clearly has a right to 'talk about a high-octane lifestyle', not just because its products 'assist' that, but also because it, as a brand, puts its money and energies where its mouth is - sponsoring new music, supporting extreme sports, paying for record-breaking attempts, and so on...which means that if 'extreme' things come into public conversation, they have a legitimate platform from which to comment. It's the 'drive-by' nature of Pepsi's engagement in this discussion which seems to have been so unacceptably opportunistic. Nadim

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