By Mylena Vazquez


At several points in recent history, Pepsi has decided to position itself as a driver of social change. In 2010, it started the Pepsi Refresh Project, an initiative that awarded a total of $20 million in grants to people or organizations with ideas for how to positively impact their communities. While the project became very popular, with 80 million votes cast and a 37% awareness level, it was a failed effort.

Interestingly, this project was not part of the company’s corporate philanthropy ventures. However, the public perception was that it was a charitable effort, but the company’s inability to meaningfully follow through with it led to rumors that it was a fraudulent scheme. In fact, this was actually a marketing campaign that was funded by the company’s marketing budget—yet there was no product tied to the campaign.

At the end of the day, Pepsi’s goal is to generate more revenue through the sale of Pepsi products. The Refresh Project did not accomplish this. In fact, Pepsi lost market share that year, trailing behind Diet Coke, which took its number two spot. This loss in market share translated into a $350 million loss for the company.

In 2017, Pepsi dipped their toes into the realm of social causes once more, enlisting supermodel Kendall Jenner to star in a commercial titled “Live for Now.” The commercial centers on a street protest, echoing the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that were taking place around that time. Jenner, who plays a supermodel in the commercial, joins the protesters and tries to achieve unity between them and the cops by handing one of the police officers a Pepsi as a peace offering. Needless to say, the backlash was swift. The ad was hailed as tone-deaf, insensitive, and opportunistic; the company pulled it the next day and issued an apology.

This, of course, affected Pepsi’s brand perception, particularly among millennials. After the controversial ad, Pepsi experienced nine months of the lowest brand perception it had ever had in a period of eight years. Purchase consideration similarly dropped, from 33% in 2014 to 23% in 2017 after the “Live for Now” ad aired. Pepsi’s attempt to develop millennial affinity resulted in the perception that Pepsi was exploiting a serious topic to pander to millennials.

In their attempts to engage in some form of corporate social responsibility, Pepsi has inadvertently alienated and even offended key target demographics. Their efforts in building positive brand associations have failed because they have been perceived as inauthentic. Customers have viewed these efforts as being motivated by the goal of making money rather than effecting change. Ultimately, it is not Pepsi’s intentions or identity that matters—it is the image that the consumer has of the brand. If the two don’t align, the stars can’t align.


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