Pepsi broke my heart, again

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The Kendall Jenner ad confirms suspicions that brands only want to do good in a transactional and inauthentic way, writes the co-author of "Good is the New Cool: Market Like You Give a Damn."

Dear Pepsi,

Sigh. You’ve broken my heart, yet again. As a marketer, I was inspired by your decades of iconic advertising. As a business person, I watched as you talked about "Performance with Purpose," and how a slow revolution was taking place where you could create food that was both fun and nutritious. As someone obsessed with brands as a force for good, I was blown away by the audacity of Pepsi Refresh, magnificent, if flawed. It broke my heart that it didn’t evolve into the all-conquering juggernaut of purpose-driven marketing it could have been.

But this week, you broke my heart again. You released a spot that was at best, tone deaf and at worst, exploitative. A spot that at first glance looked like a Saturday Night Live parody of what a purpose-driven marketing campaign could be: all shiny production values, impeccably good-looking multi-ethnic cast ... for Pete’s sake, you even had a song by Bob Marley’s grandson as the soundtrack.

Where do I start? The fact that you took the iconography of political protest, the marches and demonstrations that are the outpouring of grief by activists, from Black Lives Matter to the Women’s March to Occupy Wall Street, and robbed them of their potency by placing them in service of selling more soda? Or the fact that leading them, like a teenage Daenerys Stormborn (minus the stripped-off blonde wig) was none other than that icon of activism ... Kendall Jenner.

Or was it the fact that she was able to insouciantly stroll through the crowds of relaxed, friendly "protesters" to give a Pepsi to a handsome policeman, at which the multi-ethnic crowd ecstatically hugs because racism just ended? Minus the pepper spray, truncheons, water cannons and mass arrests that usually accompany such a move?

I can imagine the high-fiving and Kumbayas around the room. You made a bold stand for unity and inclusion and diversity right? Except you didn’t. You confirmed the suspicions of those cynics who believe that brands only want to do good in a transactional and inauthentic way; not because of a deeply-held, purpose-driven system of values. (If you want a master class in how to do it right, watch Coca Cola’s "America the Beautiful" spot by the way. Simple, poignant and powerful.)

And how exactly were you planning to follow this up, to back up the "promise" of your advertising, with the "proof" of your actions? Are you planning to make donations to some of the protest groups? Do you have a plan of action to help divided communities of color and police have better opportunities to find common ground? What exactly is your long-term plan to make sure that this isn’t just seen as empty rhetoric?

I haven’t given up on you. You have a chance to fix this. It’s going to take a lot of hard conversations internally. About how you need to have the right people at the table, with the right diverse representation, not just of ethnicity but of perspective, so they can warn you when you’re about to make a terrible mistake.

And you’re going to need to dig deep to learn from this mistake and restore faith. Because you have a golden opportunity in front of you. To really "perform with purpose" at your core. To really add value to people’s lives, in meaningful and tangible ways that go beyond advertising. And slowly, surely, you will start to erase the memory of this spot. And start to become the iconic 21st century, purpose-driven brand you have the heritage and opportunity to be.

I’ll be cheering from the sidelines when you figure it out.  

—Afdhel Aziz is the co-author of "Good is the New Cool: Market Like You Give a Damn" and founder and chief creative officer of Conspiracy of Love, a consultancy which helps Fortune 500 companies use culture and technology to build purpose-driven brands.