Was it the ad? Or the brand?

By now you know that PEPSI pulled a controversial big budget ad featuring Kylie Jenner.  In the spot Jenner plays a model swept away by a crowd of generic protesters. She then goes on to offer a cop a PEPSI, ostensibly as a peace-offering between the marchers and the establishment.  Despite the internet uproar it’s not really the ad that’s the problem. It’s the brand.

From my marketing and business lens the ad is fairly innocuous. It riffs on current social trends, exaggerates them in a way that television ads always have, and offers us an exceptionally simple solution to a big problem. But context is everything and what PEPSI failed to realize, is that they were in no position to make this ad.

Imagine for a moment that PEPSI overtly supported human rights. Perhaps like Patagonia, they had donated product to the women’s march without capitalizing on it.  Imagine they provided support for the families affected by the immigration ban. Imagine they practiced pay equity.  Would the world have reacted to this ad in the same way?

In reality PEPSI does a lot of good. In May 2016 FORBES ranked PEPSI as the #29th most valuable brand in the world. Like most global brands they have a strong CSR platform, primarily based on sustainability and human rights. In 2006 PEPSI launched an initiative called ‘Performance with Purpose’. Major initiatives include waste reduction, water conservation, gender equity and human rights improvements. The company is led by a minority woman CEO, and according to their annual report is striving to do better. Unfortunately their consumer knows nothing about it. While the CSR website and annual reports are peppered with the kind of content most social enterprises would covet, the brand website is devoid of any information related to the great work the company is doing.

Corporate giants like PEPSI have been doing good behind the scenes for years, but they continue to fail at sharing the message. The idea that it’s somehow crass or opportunistic to leverage a social or environmental mission as part of the brand story is completely outdated. Today consumers want to know that the brands they are committing their hard-earned income to align with their values. B Corps and B Business models have proven that brands with an integrated purpose are winning with consumers because they are actively sharing their good work. For B Business corporate social responsibility is not a strategy or response, CSR is company culture and brand identity, and it’s entirely inseparable from the product.

No brand or company is perfect. We can forgive PEPSI’s mistake. Nutrition aside, we can even learn to love them again, especially if they are willing to share their purpose with their customers instead of detracting from it with misguided ads.

Brand for Benefit helps companies discover, certify and share their greater purpose as a path to growth.

CEO Carolyn Ansley is an award-winning marketer, entrepreneur and mother who believes using business for good is good business.


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