When Pepsi went flat on diversity

04 May 2017

Advertising needs a diversity shake-up, starting at the top.

Marketing: Hacking the Unconscious was a fascinating listen on Radio 4 earlier this week. The series looks at the psychology behind some of the world’s most iconic marketing campaigns. The latest episode, titled ‘A Serpent in the Garden’, featured Coca-Cola’s 1971 Hilltop advert (aka ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’) and touched on the ways in which on-screen diversity was key to its success. So much so, indeed, that the creators of Mad Men chose the ad for the closing scene of the show’s finale.

 

Diversity in Advertising Coca-Cola Hilltop

 

Inevitably, the programme drew comparisons between the Hilltop ad and this year’s ill-fated ‘Live for Now’ Pepsi ad, featuring Kendall Jenner.

Why Coke’s ad worked and Pepsi’s didn’t was due in part to the difference in the nature of the brands, certainly. But it was also because the Coke team managed to capture the zeitgeist of the civil rights era, anti-war and hippy movements with its multi-ethnic casting and catchy lyric. Pepsi’s confused storyline, on the other hand, appeared to be exploitative of the current social issues it nods towards, in particular Black Lives Matter.

 

Pepsi Diversity Kendall Jenner Advert

 

The Radio 4 programme was only 15 minutes, and the Coke/Pepsi story was just one element. But it did get me thinking about Pepsi in relation to the other big advertising story of the week – Heineken’s Worlds Apart, which launched their ‘Open Your World’ campaign.

The Heineken film uses the vehicle of a science-backed social experiment, and facilitates a conversation between people with opposing life perspectives; to date it’s racked up almost 10 million YouTube views since its release on April 20th. It’s also been labelled by some media commentators as “the advert Pepsi wishes it had made”.

 

Why knowing diversity sells isn’t enough

These Pepsi and Heineken ads are part of a global marketing trend where big brands take divisive political issues (quite often diversity-related) and tackle them in a way that links the product they’re selling with positive, feel-good outcomes. With some demographic overlap in the target consumers for each brand, the two 2017 commercials feature similar themes: race and gender equality, LGBT+ rights and climate change. Both ads also benefit from a diverse cast for whom on-screen enlightenment comes as they have their thirst quenched by ice-cold beverages.

“Live for Now!”

“Open your World!”

“Diversity sells!”

You can almost hear those first briefing meetings for the teams responsible. They must have covered pretty much the same ground. But what happened between then and what we see on screen to result in the Pepsi ad being swiftly pulled from the company’s website, while Heineken is tipped for top awards?

 

Heineken Worlds Apart Diversity Ad

 

A quick look at Campaign Magazine and the people listed in the credits for Heineken reveal a team comprising men, women and visible minority individuals in senior decision-making positions.

The Pepsi team are named on the website of The Drum: the list is not as comprehensive, but is likely to be those with the most responsibility and includes men and women in a 50/50 gender split. There doesn’t, though, appear to be any visible minority representation at this level, and given the subject matter, size and global nature of the company, that’s surprising.

 

Inclusive cultures are innovative cultures

There’s lots of research that demonstrates that the more diverse the team the more innovative it will be. Diversity prevents group-think, which stifles creativity and risk-taking. It mitigates against unconscious biases which can result in stereotypes and unauthentic portrayal. And these are the very things that caused the Pepsi ad to fall flat with a sizeable section of the intended audience.

I don’t know who was in the meetings for Pepsi or for Heineken. But the different outcomes suggest that for Pepsi at least, there may not have been anyone at the top table with enough authority to bring an authentic voice, look and feel to the finished product. Someone with enough power to quickly call a halt and suggest something better when things were starting to go off kilter. Their commercial, derivative of Coke’s Hilltop, is very pretty to look at, but says nothing that wasn’t said almost 50 years ago.

Heineken’s, on the other hand, is rooted in the ugly realities of 2017, challenging us to face up to our own prejudices and the truth that whatever our differences we’ve only got each other (and a fragile planet), so we’d better try to work things out together. Above all it’s relevant, and resonates with the social concerns of this age.

It is good news that marketing and advertising companies, and the brands that commission them, are alert to the commercial benefits of reflecting the diversity of their customers. However, knowing that diversity sells isn’t enough. A diverse workforce with a culture of respect for difference – and open to new ideas and perspectives – must be an urgent priority for anyone running a creative enterprise that is looking not just to survive but to thrive through the next decade, let alone what follows.

As the concluding minutes of the Radio 4’s marketing programme attested, technology, people and the world have moved on since a group of hipsters held hands on a hilltop and set about teaching us all to sing.