Dr Pepper Evolution Toon: Flat Out of the Can

The Controversial Graphic on Facebook Doesn't Pitch Anything to Anyone in Particular

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Instead of teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony last week, Dr Pepper found a way to get nearly 30,000 people to "like" a Facebook graphic in which a can of its soda pop was presented as the link between apes and humans. The image was entitled "Evolution of Flavor."

An informal review of the 3,500-plus comments that followed it seemed pretty evenly split between people who lauded Dr Pepper for standing up for science, and folks who thought that its support for evolution was a purposeful insult to their religious faith. More than a few posts from either side were a bit more colorful.

Of course, there was no Evolution Campaign. It was a one-off graphic that was supposed to be funny in a chuckle-and-move-on sort of way. The brand's marketers produce this stuff on a regular basis, though it's usually innocuous polling, cute pictures or other throwaway content they've been told that their consumers want these days.

Do they really think that people wake up in the morning looking for an engaging relationship with soda pop?

"Content marketing" is a tautology, like "breathing air." Marketing always had content, and it was always intended to sell things. Some of it did so quite expertly, and some of it was ineffective (or outright horrible). The focus on selling was consistent, though, because the content got in front of consumers via ads that interrupted other things they'd chosen to read, watch or hear. That's why ads had to quickly get to the point with obvious purpose.

Now that media channels are often socially-driven and preproduced programming can be fast-forwarded, folks aren't dutifully enduring those ads anymore, so brands have to find new ways to get in front of consumers. The conventional wisdom is that people never liked ads and would rather that brands -- which still exist for the obvious purpose of selling things -- generate a steady stream of stuff that makes no effort to do so, thereby engaging them while somehow adding up to marketing anyway.

So Dr Pepper creates artifacts like the "Evolution" image that would have never passed muster in the bad old ad days, since it's just goofy content without any intention of selling anything to anybody in particular. With nothing to say beyond a thin joke, such content opens the door for engagement on things other than soda pop, like science in this case ... or politics, or history or any other topic about which the brand really doesn't want to have a discussion.

I know that content experts explain that brands have to do it "right," or that any engagement is better than none, and offer services to keep the engagement funnel filled. But these are the same excuses that were used to defend unneeded customer relations management and bad publicity, respectively. I'd like to suggest that the problem with the "Evolution" image wasn't its specific substance but the mistaken strategy that prompted its, er, creation?

Think of some of the world's most engaging brands, like Apple and Amazon. Neither brand tweets, although Amazon has a few names, and uses Twitter to distribute discounts on Kindle books (its Facebook page takes you directly to its web site, which is full of sales stuff). The "content" these businesses propagate into the cosmos is identical to the "conduct" of their businesses; what they make and otherwise do is what people talk about, and if/when that content appears it's truly user-generated and authentic. When either brand creates marketing content, it's pretty old-fashioned advertising that focuses on functionality and customer benefits.

Maybe the punchline is that a soda pop brand doesn't need to have a content-marketing strategy, but rather a better marketing strategy that starts with the premise that if there isn't a compelling reason to communicate something, maybe the best choice is to skip asking for consumers' attention altogether. Their needs for information are what matter most, not the needs of marketers and their agencies' to use up the available bandwidth.

If Dr Pepper is going to ask consumers to pause for something, maybe it should make sure that it's truly refreshing?

Oops, wrong brand again.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is president of Baskin Associates, a marketing-decisions consultancy, and co-author of the recently published "Tell The Truth." You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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