A Seat at the Table with FCG: Critical Multicultural Insights from Voices that Brands Desperately Need in the Room

Pepsi rocked the marketing and social media world this week releasing their new global ad featuring Kendall Jenner. The setting for the commercial was a bright and cheerful day with a slew of apparently happy protestors in the streets, with Jenner entering the fray to solve conflict between marginalized groups and the police by handing a can of Pepsi to one of the police officers standing guard. This gesture, which made the cop smile, also brought delight to the faux protestors who started clapping and cheering. Voilà – racism and police brutality solved with a can of soda.

#IssaFail – The impact of Black Twitter on brands

Bells quickly rang out in the Twittersphere when the ad dropped, which exploded with the stalest faces and shadiest negations towards the hurt brand and Kardashian sister. The think pieces on this number in the hundreds and the meme game is still going strong. As usual, Black Twitter led the charge by conducting a thorough and well-deserved dragging, which is arguably the reason the ad was pulled and the Pepsi team issued an “apology”. We’ve seen the impact of Black Twitter on brands in many other instances when brands didn’t double check their double-check.

Let’s acknowledge that this is not the first tone-deaf, racially insensitive or culturally appropriating advertisement we’ve seen, nor is it the only one on the market right now – check out Sony and Nivea. Unfortunately, this move is still an often missed mark across the board for many major brands.

As multicultural marketers, the “missed mark” (once again) hits home, as it shrinks the gravity of our continued struggle for marketing campaigns to reach and respect multicultural audiences. Causes like the fight against police brutality should not be co-opted to sell products, or to create an “edgy” campaign. For brands, this insight must be top of mind.

Here’s what we know:

83% of multicultural millennials want companies to take a stand on issues. But, it takes a lot more than simply “taking a stand.” Brands have to be human and see the humanity in the world when connecting with consumers – especially multicultural millennials. “Diversity of thought” is not enough – African American, Latino and Asian marketers need to be at the drawing boards with brands from planning to execution.

As the dissection of this blunder continues, there are still so many unanswered questions and thoughts from a multicultural marketing perspective. The questions apply to Pepsi, but they also drive our thinking every day when we work with a range of brands that look to connect with multicultural consumers. We had a conversation internally with our experts about Pepsi’s gaffe as we search for answers and extend solutions:

Who was in the room?

  • I founded FCG with the goal of helping brands navigate – and sometimes course-correct – sensitive waters such as these. We are not, and have never been, a “yes” agency that’s afraid to take a stand. For example, we worked with a cosmetic brand to urge them to represent darker skinned women in their marketing materials because we come in all shades. We worked with a banking brand to help them avoid an explosive fiasco when they shared the mock-up of a creative piece that had a “SOLD” sign atop a black man’s head standing beside his new home. In today’s business landscape, the need for culturally intuitive marketing communications is stronger than ever. ” –Michelle Flowers-Welch, Founder and CEO

Who was the ad meant to reach and why?

  • “The under- and misrepresented presence of African Americans reminds me of the assumption that having one black friend means you’re ‘down.’” – Sydney Watkins, winter intern
  • “An apology on this one is not enough, but this is great for brands  as the industry and consumers continue to buzz about key learnings when it comes to authentically connecting with multicultural consumers.” –Tracy Asencio, account executive

Who was represented on the team that had an authentic connection to the message and movement?

  • “Diversity is great, but it can’t be powerful without inclusion. That means diverse multicultural voices being heard and respected, and not just there as props.” –Christina Steed, executive vice president
  • “Brands can’t speak to a segment of consumers that they are looking to reach, without those brands actually reaching out to speak to that segment of consumers. It’s impossible to truly connect with any audience without knowing who they are, what drives them, and understanding their needs, motivations, and concerns. The same applies in marketing.” –Tony Balasandiran, account supervisor

What was the objective?

  • “The issue is way too complex to fix with a can of soda – which is what the ad suggests. For such a hot button topic, this should have been approached with more care, sincerity and purpose. It felt way too commercial.” –Danyele Davis, vice president
  • “Showcasing protest and law enforcement appeased by a soft drink does not represent a solution to the problems marginalized people face in this country.” –Luis Sanchez, account executive
  • “The notion of celebration in the wake of recent injustices against multiethnic groups in this country shows a grave disconnect from what is displayed as an idealistic utopia and the reality of real, life-threatening challenges we’re facing.” –Joey Hill, account supervisor
  • “This ad sends the message that a can of Pepsi equates to peace, and it’s all we need to solve macro social issues, which is false.” –Jasmine Bishop, winter intern

Why was Kendall Jenner, a celeb who has been accused of cultural appropriation in the past, brought to the table as an influencer?

  • “The Kardashian brand, while popular, does not resonate with multicultural people when it comes to social justice issues. This was an uncalculated choice of an influencer to deliver this message.” –Brinton Flowers, account executive
  • “Simply put, a white, privileged spokesmodel does not represent the best bridge between oppressed communities and white police in this country.” –Allison Paige, account supervisor

What element of this was intended to make it iconic?

  • “I can see how Pepsi attempted to present an image of unity and love to combat the differences of the day, but the ad reeks of a naiveté.” –Brian Packer, account supervisor
  • “I don’t fault them for their effort, again the intent was honest, it was their execution. Their fail was their lack of awareness around the gravity of the depiction and underestimation of the now ground-swelled support across cultures and ethnicities causing the brand to respond.” –Barbara Thompson, executive vice president
  • “A better direction for this would have been to gather folks who have been vocal about the issues, and doing a series of PSAs that were not pushing the product so blatantly.” –Nicole Pierce, account supervisor

In the end, FCG takes pride in helping to evolve the paradigms of traditional marketing that don’t authentically take multicultural consumers into account. Pressing forward, let’s recall this: “The war we have to wage today has only one goal and that is to make the world safe for diversity.” –U Thant

Brienna LaCoste is an account executive at FCG.

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