Brands Can Avoid A Pepsi-style Backlash

When Pepsi came under fire for using a commercial to reference race and police relations in America, many pundits from outside the advertising world wondered: Who thought this was a good idea? But Pepsi is just the latest in a long line of brands whose executives seem to lack the ability to see how consumers' views might differ from their own. 

Starbucks under CEO Howard Schultz’s watch is no stranger to controversy, including a disastrously misjudged attempt at getting customers to discuss race relations with their baristas. That idea was quickly dropped. But when Schultz vowed in late January that the coffee chain would give preference to foreign nationals when hiring its next 10,000 employees, the brand’s consideration rates took a substantial hit: There was a 6% drop in the number of consumers who told YouGov they’d consider patronizing Starbucks for their next coffee. YouGov BrandIndex also reported a 70% plunge in the company’s consumer perception levels.



While Pepsi is guilty of not considering the range of views consumers hold on topics of policing in America and racial dynamics, they also failed to recognize just how sensitive the population now is to the signals brands send. Compared to five or 10 years ago, Americans are much less likely to take these signals lightly — a shift that has overtaken advertising and the media world in general.

So why are brands defying logic to get political when the stakes are so high? It's likely that the marketers running the show are just revealing their lack of empathy with the people who buy their products and services. Advertising is an insular industry, but there was a time when the people within it were more careful to hide the limits of their knowledge about what will resonate with the rest of the country and culture. 

No matter which end of the political spectrum a person falls on, it’s natural for an individual to believe that their values are the “correct” ones. But marketers have a greater responsibility — to their histories, their equities, and their shareholders — to be true to the brand no matter what. That means removing one’s own viewpoint from the equation and honoring what the brand represents to consumers — who want their brands to be consistent in the bedrock values they’ve always been associated with.

For a brand like Tesla, it makes total sense for them to bang the drum of environmentalism. But most brands grasping at such hot-button issues aren’t enhancing the brand. And even if consumers agree with the stance, they can usually see it for what it is: posturing in the hopes of making more money. Just as people feel more comfortable with individuals who are unpretentious and transparent, they also favor brands that aren’t trying to be something they’re not or just tell people what they want to hear.

Now, with activist advertising as a new form of brand signaling, all bets are off.

With whom does the buck stop when the marketing department starts going down this road? Ultimately, it's up to the CEO to ask — in this and all cases — for thorough justification. These four questions are a good start:

1. Why does this need to be said by our brand?

2. Is our stance consistent with our brand’s heritage and values, or are we trying to be something we’re not?

3. Why do we think our target consumers will see this the way we do?

4. What's in it for our brand?

These are all simple questions, and if the answers don't relate to building brand equity, persuading consumers, or fighting off declines in a competitive marketplace, it's probably a bad idea. Worse, it could represent an irreversible betrayal of what the brand stands for in the minds of consumers. 

Marketers owe it to their brands to put consumers first, and that means advertising in a way that’s consistent with the brand’s historical values. Anything else is almost certain to backfire, no matter how good it makes the marketing team feel about themselves.

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