5 Lessons From the Great Pepsi Shakeup

It’s much easier to tell the difference between Coca-Cola and Pepsi than it was just a few short weeks ago. Thanks to an extremely controversial television commercial, Pepsi has left a rather bitter aftertaste in the mouths of protesters everywhere — figuratively speaking, of course.

The commercial features fresh-faced Kardashian sister and walking brand Kendall Jenner, posing as a supermodel-cum-onlooker during an American street protest. As she joins the crowd, Jenner grabs a conveniently placed can of ice-cold Pepsi and passes it to a stoic police officer. The protesters go wild, the officer cracks a smile, and everything is OK again.

Needless to say, the ad was not well-received. Recent headlines have been dominated by very real protests: the Black Lives Matter movement, international Women’s Marches, and anti-Trump rallies, to name a few. Facing widespread criticism, Pepsi pulled the commercial and apologized for its epic fail. Jenner is reportedly quietly mortified.

Most of us want to avoid the ire of the interwebs and the shame of public apology. So what went wrong? How can we avoid repeating the great Pepsi shakeup in our own efforts?

1. Be topical, but skip the cynicism.

There’s nothing quite like jumping on a hashtagtrending topic to put the fire under a campaign. But when it comes to something sensitive — such as systemic disillusionment and fear — it’s probably best to err on the side of caution.

Pepsi’s mistake is somewhat reminiscent of Benetton’s much-maligned 1990s effort that notoriously hijacked the “Face of AIDS” awareness campaign. Trending topics are sensitive. If people are taking rubber bullets and baton cracks or they’re wasting away from a terrible disease, it’s not a time to show up and hawk your wares.

2. Be self-aware of your context.

Pepsi’s ad clearly was going for the feel-good factor, yet it couched itself in a contemporary context of suffering. Companies that really want to make an impact invest in corporate social responsibility projects or find a positive message that complements their mission.

The New York Times, for example, has embraced the slogan, “The truth is more important now than ever.” Ride-sharing app Lyft will donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union over a four-year span. Both convey positive intention, make a genuine impact and create great publicity.

3. Protect your brand advocates.

In all fairness, Pepsi recognized this principle and made an official apology to Jenner. “We are removing the content and halting any further rollout,” the company stated via press release and across its social-media accounts. “We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

Some are quick to condemn the 21-year-old for making a bad decision. The blame really lies with the people behind the ad, her agent or anyone who persuaded her to do it.

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