In Crisis Management, Millennial Marketing, Public Relations, Reputation

Pepsi MemeYou probably haven’t gone through your weekend without hearing something about the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial. In case you’ve been living under a rock, I’ll summarize the source of the angst it’s created.

We start with a long shot of protesters marching in the streets. Although it is unclear what they were protesting, it could be inferred that it has something to do with social justice. Young people are holding up signs with somewhat general phrases such as “Join the Conversation.” Kendall Jenner, who appears to be in the midst of a modeling photo-shoot, notices the march, decides to leave her frivolous endeavor and join The People. Walking through the crowd, she picks up a can of Pepsi and hands it to a police officer. The officer then drinks from the can.  Zoom in on the transformation of this dour-faced policeman to a smiling supporter.  The crowd cheers.  And it’s clear that Kendall’s gesture has just brought about world peace!

Shortly after airing, things went bad for Pepsi.  Very bad.  The commercial was skewered by everyone from Saturday Night Live to Stephen Colbert to Seth Meyers.  The internet broke.  And Pepsi was forced to pull the commercial. This tone-deaf spot did not come across as authentic or sensitive, and Millennials didn’t like it, to say the least. They retaliated, using the sharpest tool they have: social media. There was no mercy for either Jenner or Pepsi.

It appears that Pepsi was trying to appeal to socially-conscience Millennials.  It missed the mark and turned into the hottest meme out there. Will Millennials remember it? No doubt about that!  I’ll bet they are wondering whose idea it was to make Kendall Jenner the face of activism. The Kardashians were never known for their social consciences. By positioning Jenner as a change-agent, Pepsi came across as inauthentic, and frankly, even laughable.

Creative directors at ad agencies can get so caught up in creating their “Masterpieces” and reaching the hearts of Millennials that they forget to market-test their messages on them. It happens to everyone. We focus on making the product and forget to check whether we are doing the right thing. But that is still no excuse. Pepsi should have market-tested this ad with Millennials before airing it.

The lessons for marketers are clear. Those who choose to appeal to socially conscious Millennials must tread carefully. Those who do it right send a powerful message. Think of the Lumber 84 Super Bowl commercial. Those who do it wrong become a late night comedian’s punch line.

So here’s how to avoid becoming the next epic meme:

  1. Involve members of your team from your target audience in the creation of your ad. Create an environment where they feel safe enough to speak up and share their opinions
  2. Test your message on that same audience before you air it
  3. Use celebrities with a natural connection to your cause
  4. Donate to or participate in social activism that is an authentic fit for what you do. Nothing riles up a Millennial faster than a company pretending to care.

Millennials vote their conscience with their pocketbooks and their feet. It’s a fact. But marketers who target them need to do it carefully.  If you pretend to solve the world’s problems with a can of soda, you can expect Millennials to call your bluff – immediately and enthusiastically.


Fahoum Fahoum is a member of the Millennial Principle team covering diversity issues.


Recommended Posts