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Pepsi: Why your brand's message needs to be clear

Pepsi. Has there ever been a brand that lived more in the shadow of its closest rival? The perpetual challenger, which has provided us with "over 100 years of fun and refreshment", finds itself in the public eye for all the wrong reasons right now.

The company has provoked some strong reactions - pretty much all of them negative - for a new campaign featuring Kendall Jenner. In the ad, Jenner leaves a protest of which she is part to present a can of Pepsi to a police officer.

The links to the recent protests by the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality are clumsily obvious - whether intentional or not - and Jenner's participation in the advert is proving as controversial as her actions.

The ad has high production values and will have cost a great deal of money to make. But the damage it could potentially do to Pepsi's brand is very difficult to put a number on.

Pepsi has taken a simplistic view of a highly contentious and complex issue, and (presumably unintentionally) suggested it can be solved at a stroke. While there is some value in tackling big issues, brands who fail to do it in an intelligent way are asking for trouble.

What Pepsi has tried to do is put out an inspirational message about unity. In these times of uncertainty and division, this is to its credit. However, the unsubtle, glib and insensitive handling of these themes is woeful and makes you wonder just how many people had the chance to veto this project yet chose to stay quiet, or were just so caught up the hype that they failed to notice.

The way Pepsi describe the advert on YouTube is: "A short film about the moments when we decide to let go, choose to act, follow our passion and nothing holds us back. Capturing the spirit and actions of those people that jump in to every moment and featuring multiple lives, stories and emotional connections that show passion, joy, unbound and uninhibited moments. No matter the occasion, big or small, these are the moments that make us feel alive."

So, if this was the intention, why use a protest as the central element of the ad? Protests provoke a variety of emotions and suggest a conflict between groups of people - it just doesn't seem like fertile ground to build an advertising campaign on. I accept that if you were to put this description to a dozen different agencies you would get a variety of different treatments - many of them likely to be completely off the wall - but if an agency suggested building the ad around a protest I don't think they'd be making it to the shortlist.

In a statement about the advert, Pepsi said: "This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony. We think that's an important message to convey."

Quite right too. It is an important message. But that isn't the message that comes across.

Brands have to carefully consider their message, yes, but they also have to think about any messages that they might be putting out unintentionally too. They need to come out of their bubble and ensure that their target audience segments understand what they are trying to say, and don't take a different meaning from it altogether.

The benefit of ensuring you have a culturally diverse workforce - at all levels - is that you get a variety of viewpoints. While some might see opportunities, others might see red flags, as they have a completely different viewpoint.

It's also worth thinking about the influencers that you connect with as a brand. Pepsi has a wide-ranging audience and needs to be seen as being inclusive. So putting an actor who carries with her a perception of privilege in a situation where it looks as if she is co-opting a very important political movement is a real head-scratcher. The advert will have consequences for both Pepsi and Jenner - none of them good.

There are some that are suggesting that Pepsi may have intended to cause a Twitterstorm - if it did then it has been incredibly effective - in order to get attention. I don't buy this for a minute - there are other, less catastrophic ways to do that.

So while the in-house creatives or agency will probably be in for an interesting few days, there are a lot of people who need to take a long hard look at themselves here.


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