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  • Kristen Wong

Dos and Don'ts of Brand Activism

Updated: May 19

When companies take stances on controversial issues like gun control and racial injustice, their marketing and public relations teams need to conduct in-depth research to ensure that the campaigns don’t infuriate and alienate consumers. According to Krystal Davis, brands must know their core values and make sure that their actions are supported. When companies jump into conversations that aren't researched thoroughly, an outroar can occur.


Pepsi: But I Asked for a Coke


In April 2017, Pepsi released an advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner that left social media in chaos and people in awe. The advertisement showed people happily participating in protests, surrounded by police officers standing watch. Kendall Jenner, clad in a wig and model clothing, throws off her wig and struts into the protest, grabbing a Pepsi can from a bucket. She confidently walks up to one of the officers and hands him the soda. He takes that fateful sip, and suddenly, the whole crowd erupts in cheers.


Social media users vehemently condemned the ad for downplaying the efforts of protesters involved in the Black Lives Matter movement to fight against racial injustice and the killings of unarmed black men. The ad was seen as appropriation because it used the elements of these protests to sell Pepsi products. Many were deeply offended that the ad ignored the struggles and dangers that protesters endure and that Pepsi is conveying that a celebrity model with a soda can single-handedly bring peace and quell uproar.

The backlash was savage and unrelenting. In the first 48 hours, the YouTube video received 1.6 million views and got nearly five times more dislikes than likes. According to Brandwatch, Pepsi’s social media mentions increased by 21,675 percent from April 3, the day before the ad was released, to April 5. On April 4, there were more than 427,000 Twitter mentions of Pepsi, and on April 5, there were more than 1.25 million mentions. Because of the virulence of the opposition, Pepsi pulled the ad the day after, releasing a statement acknowledging that the company had missed the mark and had only wanted to promote unity.


How Not to Keep up with the Kardashians


Pepsi’s blunder could have been avoided if the company had more diversity on its creative teams and if more research was conducted. Twitter users lamented that if Pepsi’s team had people of color, the gaffe would’ve been easily prevented. According to a Marketing Week survey, around 42% of marketers believe that the marketing and advertising of the brands they work for don’t represent a contemporary, diverse society. A diverse team incorporates a variety of views and challenges perspectives.

In addition, more research on the issue at hand could’ve given more insights into the effects of a campaign covering a sensitive, contentious topic. DigitasLBi’s chief strategy officer mentioned how Pepsi should’ve contacted protest groups to understand what the groups do and their positions on the message. Gauging the attitudes of stakeholders affected by your marketing and advertising is essential in determining how you resonate with key publics.


Let’s Keep the Mentos out of the Soda


Although more brands are instilling political and social issues into marketing strategies, it doesn’t mean that the companies have to go in blind. An unseen misstep in the development process is deadly when implemented, driving away current and potential customers. According to Regina Luttrell in “Social Media: How to Engage, Share, and Connect,” brands must create a conversation plan on social media, which includes anticipating consumers’ responses and what types of conversations you want to induce to ensure that you are achieving success.


So before a company jumps into a hot issue, do research. Research how your consumers will react. Research how other important stakeholders might react. Develop more inclusive teams with a breadth of knowledge and experience. Because once you fall and make a fool of yourself, people will remember forever.