Pepsi, Listen to the New Generation

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The ad everyone is talking about.
The ad everyone is talking about. Credit: Pepsi

In an age where people feel unsafe walking around because of the color of their skin, are afraid to hold their partner's hand in public and wonder if coworkers with an Adam's apple are making 20% more for the same work, it's no surprise that Pepsi's latest campaign fell flat and has now been pulled.

We live in an incredibly raw time. Emotions are high, and there are a lot of social causes and movements catching people's attention. Because of that, many brands are trying to figure out ways to participate. While some, Like REI, thrive when it comes to speaking about issues like feminism, others -- ahem, Pepsi -- are struggling to find that line between marketing and meaning.

There is no more important distinction for a brand to make today: Are you part of the movement, or jumping on the bandwagon when it's convenient? Choose carefully or you may find yourself under the wheels.

As someone who has worked in cause marketing for years, let me give you some advice:

  • Opportunity or opportunist? Pause for a second. If you, or anyone on your team, is asking, "How can we use this movement to sell our product?" Bow out. Full stop. Movements are about activating people around things that matter, not checking the pockets of social activists for loose change.
  • Tread carefully. If there's an issue that that speaks to the core of your business, by all means speak up. But make sure you do so thoughtfully and authentically. The best way to do that is to include your audience in the conversation. Ask them how they feel, and amplify their voices. If you let people speak to what's important to them, you're going to have a much more compelling story to tell -- one that can make a real impact.
  • Read the room. Does your tone match the tone of the movement? Are you being lighthearted or flippant? If there's only one piece of advice you heed here, let it be this: You need to deeply understand the message of a social cause before you comment on it. Make sure you're speaking the same language as the people participating.
  • Get some perspective. My advice for Pepsi -- and for other brands looking to engage in social causes -- is to seek out other perspectives and keep it real. Gut check your concept with people outside of your creative team. In the case of the Pepsi debacle, it may have helped if someone had said, "Wait a minute. Is Kendall Jenner the right choice for this? Is this the right message?" Next time, skip the celebrity and let the voices of real people shine.
  • Stay in your wheelhouse. When it comes to Pepsi, the big lesson here isn't "Don't get involved in social causes." It's "Don't try to sanitize and spit shine activism, and then repackage it." These marches aren't trivial things. They're not pep rallies. They're an emotional outpouring from people who need to have their voices heard. Therefore, it's not advisable to trivialize their struggles. Brands using cause marketing need to help people tell their story, not take their struggle and turn it into a commercial.

Over my 18-year career, I've seen a lot of campaigns faceplant. In the past few years, such failures have hit a fever pitch. We're in a brave new world, folks, shifting from a world of ad sales to one of advocacy. It's wonderful and thrilling to see businesses stand up and speak out for the issues that really matter, but it's also terrifying to see them swing and miss. Learn from Pepsi's lesson, take my advice and wield your megaphones wisely, lest your brand be the next trending topic on Twitter.

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