It is unlikely that anyone at Pepsi Co. thought that their new commercial would make this big of a splash.
Sure, it's a socially conscious commercial so it's bound to cause some disgruntled reactions right?
They weren't ready.
The roughly two minute and thirty second spot debuted to harsh critics and even harsher social media response. Featuring Kyle Jenner, the commercial takes the viewer through a suggested protest/love rally of the millennial generation. Filled with a myriad of diverse figures, characters from all walks of life converge with super model Jenner as they drink Pepsi and march towards an apparent police line. Ms. Jenner walks from the crowd and hands one of the officers a Pepsi. He smiles, she smiles, the crowd erupts in cheers and the revolution is over.
Someone (ones) at Pepsi clearly did not think this through.
In today's super charged atmosphere of protest, police brutality, cop killings, and Black Lives Matter/Blue Lives Matter movements, to tackle the subject of social justice through protest is a gutsy move for any brand. As a result of the new ad, Pepsi has been accused of using serious protest issues to sell a soft drink while negating the presence of race and class issues impacting its customers. Nevertheless, it is a perfect case study of why marketing and CSR teams must work together early and often.
The heart of this problem begins by addressing the issue of cultural diversity at the senior level for corporate america. Minorities make up less than 5% of CEO's in this country. Those that do make it to the senior level are often in the areas of Diversity and Inclusion (D &I) and Corporate Social Responsibility. While the CSR department is the social conscious of the organization, it is often completely isolated from areas such as brand marketing, sales and the C-suite. By not engaging the two together, brand marketing is awash in the false reality of those that sit around their table. When all the people around the table look alike, the ideas, concepts and narrative will reflect that false reality.
Marketing and advertising firms learned this lesson when selling to women. While firms were filled with all male teams, it didn't take long to realize that women read the magazines, shopped the circulars and, more importantly, used the products. Advertising firms began including women. Social responsibility must be included in the same manner. Today's consumers require accountability for the suppliers of their favorite products. Customers want to know that their favorite drink, soap, car, etc., is taking care of the environment, treating people well and being an all around good corporate citizen. CSR is best equipped to chime in on market research and provide an outside, socially conscious voice to the conversation. When included early, the outcome drives a message that is not only directly correlated to the organization's mission, but also vetted by someone "new" to the table.
Pepsi has already pulled it's ad. They have issued a public apology and cancelled any further roll out of the ad. The brand cost, financial impact and social response will continue to add up to dollars the company could have saved. In the future, hopefully Pepsi and others will incorporate solid CSR inclusion and discussion early instead of paying the high price of exclusion.
Heather McTeer Toney is former Regional Administrator for the EPA Southeast Region 4 and former Mayor of Greenville, MS. She is an expert in corporate social responsibility and environmental policy development. Heather enjoys triathlons and is training for her first 70.3 half Ironman race.