The Ups and Downs of Brand Imaging In the Age of Social Activism

04.21.2017 | Kylee Brown

As a student of the University of Washington’s business school and as an intern here at Communiqué PR, I have spent a lot of time over my college career learning about brand image and messaging and the importance of consistency. As I’ve come to understand it, brand image is a crucial part of any team’s marketing or PR strategy, no matter what business or product is being sold.

Over the last few weeks in particular, there have been a number of impressively bad branding strategies (yes, I am talking about Pepsi) so it feels like the right time for a crash course on how to avoid a branding disaster.

Let’s start by looking at what happened to Pepsi. If I have spent a lot of class time talking about brand image (and I have), I have spent an equal amount of time discussing Pepsi and Coke and their infamous “cola wars.” The reason that Pepsi and Coke are often cited as prime examples about the importance of brand image is because of how unique the soda industry is. Since Pepsi and Coke are the two biggest global brands today, and their prices and company structures are so similar, the war between the two rivals has been waged almost exclusively through advertising and marketing based on their brand image.

Collectively, the two companies spend around $5 billion on advertising each year – for them, brand image really is everything. This is why Pepsi’s recent commercial featuring Kendall Jenner was such a PR and branding catastrophe: in an industry where the only competitive differentiator is how consumers view your company, the kind of blow dealt by the Pepsi/Kendall Jenner ad could be devastating. There has been a trend of companies moving toward progressive branding to appeal to younger consumers, and since the Pepsi image has always strived to appeal to a young and fun audience, it makes sense that executives attempted to create an ad that addressed social and political issues.

However, Pepsi failed to understand the implications of its actions, and it backfired. While Pepsi was attempting to support the protest movement sweeping the nation, instead of empowering the activists and protesters that are fighting for social justice, they made light of it by putting a soft drink as a cure-all solution to very complex socio-policies issues going on worldwide . The ad trivialized a very serious issue to the point that the ad’s ‘protest’ looked more like fun dance party. Due to its size and decades of good branding, Pepsi will likely be emerge unscathed in the big picture, but a smaller company may find it very difficult to make a comeback from this sort of impact to a brand.

Luckily, companies can learn from Pepsi’s mistake. If you are going to take a stand and join the many companies that are moving toward more progressive and socially conscious branding, do your research, pick an issue and be thoughtful about how it aligns with your brand and the messages you want convey.

The thing about brands, especially global ones like Pepsi, is that they genuinely have the potential to do a lot of good. In fact, 84 percent of people in a recent study believed that brands have the power to make the world a better place, and they do. However, ads like the one Pepsi put out show little to no sensitivity to the struggles of the issue they are trying to highlight.

Marketers and PR pros alike need to put themselves in the shoes of the people closest to an issue and consider how their campaign or ad will bring awareness to a problem. Hiring a celebrity spokesperson is not always going to be the best way to do that. A better approach might to connect with real people on the front lines and use their insight and perspective to create a meaningful message that reflects the values and vision of the community it is serving.

Companies also need to start considering the power that consumers have, especially in the age of social media. Everyone has a voice, so it is particularly important to be sensitive to a variety of different audiences. At this time in history, there are certain topics that should not be exploited for consumerization and this takes a degree of common sense to realize. However, if you are truly set on taking a stand, consider showing the campaign to a variety of test audiences to gauge reactions.

There is one thing that Pepsi did correctly, and that is taking ownership of its mistake. While the commercial itself might be considered by many to be a disaster, the company was quick to apologize and realize they had made a serious faux pas. While there was some damage done, it was certainly not irreversible, but this may not always be true. If you want to go the route of Pepsi and put out a campaign around a social issue, make sure you consider each and every angle.


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Filed under: Branding, COMMUNIQUÉ PR, Planning, Reputation Management, Social media, Strategy

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