Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised By The Pepsi Fiasco

The world is calling Pepsi tone deaf. “How can this happen?” is the question on everyone’s mind.

I heard about the hype last week, then watched the ad on YouTube. Far worse than I even thought. My involuntary response was the same as everyone else’s. “How could this happen? What were they thinking?”

But shocking bad taste and cluelessness aside, this should have come as no surprise to anyone.

I’ll tell you exactly how it happened.

Every Company Has Been Tone Deaf at One Time or Another

Marketing executives live inside bubbles of their own making.

There was a time when Coke and Pepsi were iconic to marketers and consumers alike. That day has long passed. Along with McDonald’s, those brands are no longer aspirational metaphors for how we live, evoking images of freedom, inclusiveness, joy, patriotism or eternal youth. Now they are just a step above tobacco companies, evil villains responsible for making America fat and unhealthy.

These companies are run by smart, accomplished people, who’s rational minds surely grasp this reality. Yet emotionally, they remain in denial.

Open a Coke and “Taste the Feeling!” Pairing Coke with “new and rewarding” experiences” makes life better! “Explore them all!” This approach may have worked a generation ago, but not when the category carries a stigma and is fading from the mainstream.

The McDonald’s Super Bowl ad, “There’s a Big Mac for That,” was a high energy, hip-hop affair with high stepping marching bands and fit, smiling people dancing and doing acrobatics. Just like the feeling people have after scarfing down a Big Mac and feel it settling into their gut like a lead weight.

And now, finally, Pepsi has been revealed as the long awaited key to world peace.

We can’t blame any of these brands for being aspirational, nor can we blame their marketing executives for trying to portray their brands in the most positive light. It’s what they do for a living and they have to leverage any rationale available to overcome cognitive dissonance. Hell, I’m in marketing. I do it myself.

But you can climb so deeply into the bubble that you lose sight of what your product really is and truly stands for.

Marketers of less controversial brands, everyday products like toothpaste or paper towels, also fall into this trap. Understandably, if you’re the brand manager on one of Colgate’s infinite line extensions, you live, eat and sleep your product. This is, of course, your job, and you should be heavily invested. But not to the point of living in a fantasy world, where you imagine your brand matters as much as an Apple, Nike or Starbucks in the minds of consumers. It’s just toothpaste, at this point, a parity product. Since they all work pretty well and you’ve rendered us senseless with a baffling range of variations that have sucked all the meaning out of the category, I’m just fine with whatever is on sale at Costco.

While these tone deaf journeys to the center of the bubble are usually innocent for the most part, they can sometimes be cynical or downright evil. Coca-Cola had to retreat, tail between legs, when their scheme to fraudulently influence academic research was exposed. They were trying to push the theory that you could drink all the sugary soda you like if only you exercised. Science did not agree.

The intention of those responsible could have been to purposely mislead. But I tend to think that like some climate change deniers, they are simply so deeply invested, emotionally and financially, that their minds must struggle, unconsciously, to achieve some sort of cognitive resonance by any means possible.

No Mitigating Influence

My second thought, after “Oh my God, how could Pepsi do this?” was, did their agency, BBDO, really write and produce this mess? Not that BBDO can’t lay an egg from time to time. That’s just what happens sometimes in a very risky business. But in this case, my gut told me that their creative judgement wouldn’t allow them to go where this ad went.

Turned out I was right. The ad was created in-house by Pepsi’s Creators League Studio, which reports directly to the president of PepsiCo's global beverage group and the senior VP of global brand development.

One of the roles of an ad agency must be to play objective, outside advisor to its clients. Creative departments are charged with faithfully delivering on brand strategies with memorable, compelling communications. Equally important, that creative process must be guided by strategic planners playing the role of brand psychologist.

If I told a psychologist that I was convinced, at my age and with my skill set, I should seriously embark on a career as a major league baseball player, it would be her job to enlighten me. Yes, it’s nice to want to perform at that level, but maybe you’d be happier, and more likely to succeed, if you went to the gym a few days a week and maybe played in a softball league with people your own age. In other words, it’s great to set goals and dream big, but we are only setting ourselves up for disappointment if we don’t truly understand our own strengths and weaknesses. Sanity is accepting who you are and doing the very best with what you’ve got.

The Kendall Jenner ad was another case of drinking the corporate Kool-Ade. There was no outside, objective, moderating influence to point out what was obvious to any outsider. Your brand can’t do that. Don’t even go there.

Our attention spans are so short, news and content fly at us at such an unrelenting pace, that we’ll like forget about the Kendall ad by next week. We shouldn’t. Marketers are best served by self-awareness, a true understanding of what their brands are capable and not capable of doing. We’ll see if and how Pepsi learns from this fiasco. I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ll do next.