3 Lessons From Pepsi's Controversial Kendall Jenner Protest Ad
If your business isn't politics, keep politics out of your business.
PepsiCo owns some 22 billion-dollar brands, including Gatorade, Tropicana, Lay’s, Doritos, Fritos, Quaker, Mountain Dew, Aquafina, and of course, Pepsi. And yet, the food and beverage giant walked straight into a brand minefield with a now infamous protest commercial starring Kendall Jenner.
If the message was that a can of Pepsi can unite both sides of the most divisive political movements of the day -- from Black Lives Matter to Women and Donald Trump -- it only succeeded in uniting everyone against Pepsi for being tone-deaf and trivializing what they see as serious issues.
PepsiCo pulled the ad campaign and issued an apology two days later, saying “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue,” and so on.
Here’s the thing. While the commercial was ill-conceived, I can see where the company was trying to go with it. Personally, I think people are way too thin-skinned for their own good these days. Who knew that TV and internet ads are supposed to be safe spaces devoid of controversy? Not me, that’s for sure.
That said, the world is the way it is, and no company big or small gets to dictate how its customers think, feel or perceive their brand. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is brand preference. Like it or not, we are becoming a society of snowflakes who get offended at the drop of a hat. That’s the new normal.
Pepsi is just the latest in a long line of companies and individuals to get caught in the cross hairs of the growing ranks of political activists and social media trolls who never pass up an opportunity to whine, criticize and call attention to themselves and their causes, whether their outcries are legitimate or not.
Their weapon of choice is to rile up their hordes of social media followers in viral protest. That usually end up in calls for boycotts or for those responsible for whatever upset them to be fired. If your company really rubs the wrong activists the wrong way, you may even end up in court.
I can think of a laundry list of companies that have recently suffered that fate, from Budweiser and Netflix to Uber and Grubhub. Going back further there was Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, Whole Foods, the Food Network over Paula Dean, and A&E over Duck Dynasty. I can go on and on.
Corporate giants can more readily weather social media firestorms and PR crises. In time, they always bounce back. It’s harder for smaller companies and individuals, who can find their reputations and businesses ruined for good. Business leaders can avoid unforced errors that can get them in big trouble by following three simple rules:
Take cultural trends seriously.
Whenever this sort of thing happens, fair-minded and clear-thinking people always shake their heads and say something like, “What’s the big deal?” “Can’t people just mind their own business?” Or my personal favorite, “It shouldn’t be this way.”
I feel you folks, but companies and individuals with a lot at stake need to wake up and face social reality. For an extremely vocal minority, controversial issues are a big deal. They make it their business. Like it or not, that’s just the way it is. Take it seriously.
Remember that risk-reward has a downside.
If you think about why Pepsi ran the ad, it was a simple risk-reward proposition. They knew it was controversial, but they went for it, hoping it would resonate in a big way. Instead, the opposite happened.
You always hear people say “you have to risk big to win big” and “no pain, no gain,” but you never hear anyone talk about the downside risk, that you can just as easily lose big. Never forget that.
If your business isn’t politics, keep politics out of your business.
I’ve been telling executives and business leaders that for as long as I can remember. Do they ever listen? Most don't but the savvy ones do. The way I see it, if you can’t afford to lose half your customers over your position on a controversial issue, just don’t go there. Simple as that.
Pepsi will walk away from this without so much as a dent to its pristine brand. You, my friend, may not be so lucky.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.