Seven Lessons in Appropriating a Social Movement, Teachings from #PepsiMoment

Seven Lessons in Appropriating a Social Movement, Teachings from #PepsiMoment

Let’s get to the point very quickly, Pepsi’s latest advertisement is awful. Launched yesterday, “Live for the Now Moments Anthem” stars Kendall Jenner and violates proven advertising principles and good taste.

I would post a link to the ad, but it has coincidentally become unavailable. 

The ad opens with lonely artists in proximity of smiling protesters who are marching through a street. The protesters raise friendly and generic signs emblazoned with harmless peace signs and useless corporate slogans like “Join the Conversation.”

What are they protesting? We don’t know. But anyone who watched news reports during the Black Lives Matter protests knows the ad’s implication.

This scene of musicians and marchers is set in the context of a photo shoot with a non-smiling Kendall Jenner and smiling patrons in an open-windowed cafe.

Completely without provocation, the smiling musicians join together and smiling break-dancing commences. Yes, break-dancing.

A 75-cent can of soda will never calm a crowd or absolve a nation from its sins.

Then Kendall takes off her wig (this is not an exaggeration) to join the march which has been paused (not confronted with riot gear) by a line of police officers. Kendall steps through the crowd and hands a police officer a Pepsi. He smiles, nods. The crowd applauds, jumps up and down, hugs and generously gives out smiling high-fives.

It’s everything cheesy and painful about advertising and borders on a plagiarist attempt to modernize Coke’s famous “Hilltop” (or “I’d like to Buy the World a Coke”) advertisement. Strange for a direct competitor.

It’s also much more than that. It’s a tone-deaf appropriation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It trivializes the underlying and very serious issues facing the African-American community and the police. The reaction on Twitter, predictably and rightfully, hasn’t been kind.

Even if your brand has a logical reason to ‘play in that space,’ it hasn’t signed a social contract with consumers worthy of tackling such indelible topics.

I’ve been on the “inside” of brand discussions on whether and how to create effective and strategic signature marketing campaigns that address social/environmental issues. I know what it’s like, but had I been involved with this one my advice would have been simply: No.

So where did Pepsi go wrong?  Here are the lessons drawn from this #PepsiMoment:

Lesson One: Just, don’t do it

First, ask yourself should we (your brand, your company) take on a controversial issue? The answer is probably. For divisive issues, the underlying causes run too deep for your brand to credibly address. Even if your brand has a logical reason to “play in that space,” it hasn’t signed a social contract with consumers worthy of tackling such indelible topics. Unraveling them is nearly impossible and likely inappropriate for a brand.  

That being said, you still think your brand should do it? Here’s what you could do:

Lesson Two: Make an Impact

Whether the topic is controversial or not, a company must fulfill at least one of the following principles of action in brand-social movements:

  1. Increase awareness – a brand must increase attention and action to a topic
  2. Raise funds – a brand must contribute money and galvanize further resources to address a cause
  3. Drive impact – a brand must create true positive change
  4. Provide insight – a brand must break a persistent pattern of sociological thought to spark social innovation, such as unbiased research

Each of these principles requires a level of forethought, attention, strategic planning and financial (and other) resources. The larger the issue, the more required. The Pepsi ad does none of those. Instead consumers are left with a lingering question: “What was all that about?”

There’s no consumer call-to-action, no way to get involved and no indication Pepsi itself is doing anything about it. It's an attempt at a feel-good advertisement that makes you feel-wrong.

Lesson Three: “Right Size” Your Role

Race relations in the US is grounded in centuries of divisive institutional, cultural, political and psychological barriers to change. No singular political figure, organization or community can disentangle this history in a two-minute video. A 75-cent can of soda will never calm a crowd or absolve a nation from its sins.

Even if you have a brand a big as Pepsi, addressing a social issue as significant as race relations is over-ambitious, at best, and offensive. Instead, brands should focus on something smaller with achievable results. Importantly, your brand’s cause should match your role in society. It should have logic and create an emotional connection.

Lesson Four: Don’t try too hard

I’m all for representation in advertising – it’s extremely important. But the Pepsi ad does exhausting gymnastics to show an overly diverse crowd. Even in diverse metropolitan areas like New York City, it comes off as completely unnatural. Representation matters. But when you go to this extent, it appears as a ploy to inoculate yourself of criticism. If only Pepsi had focused more attention on the content and substance of its ad.

Lesson Five: Ground in an Insight

The core of any good advertising or public relations campaign is an insight. An insight is an unspoken human truth that causes you to look at a problem differently.  It’s one of the many things missing from the Pepsi ad.

Why are the protesters marching? What role does a Pepsi product play in the protest? Why is handing a can of Pepsi to a cop worth high-fives? These questions are unanswered and therefore makes the ad disingenuous.

Lesson Six: Have a Point-of-View

What is Pepsi’s point of view on this issue? Are they on the side of Black Lives Matter or the police? We don’t know. Instead, the ad celebrates the common traits of the human spirit – the commonalities of joyful music and the beverages we imbibe. They can unite us, according to Pepsi. Break-dancing, too! It’s a bad joke that's not funny.

Most likely, Pepsi knew it couldn’t withstand the blow-back by choosing one side over another. Instead, the brand hopes we would be distracted by smiling protesters and high-fives.  Ironically, the company is now experiencing the blow-back it wanted to avoid.

Trying to be everything to everyone is not a marketing strategy. Addressing social and environmental issues necessitate "an edge." The bigger the issue, the sharper that edge needs to be. All we get from this ad is weak tea.  

Lesson Seven: Choose a Spokesperson Carefully

I don’t know Kendall Jenner. I don’t really care. All I know is that the “brand” of the Jenner and Kardashian families is tainted with vapid privilege. Too harsh? Even if you are a fan, you have to agree that’s a perception in most people’s minds.

Just like the Pepsi brand doesn’t have permission to attempt to ameliorate race relations, Kendall Jenner is hardly the right choice for such a subject.  She has no credentials. Her reported charitable efforts are heartening, but none of the causes she supports focus on race.  

I always advise brands to very cautiously consider celebrity spokespersons. This is a good example of why caution is wiser than full embrace. Why should I listen to her about race relations? What perspective does she offer? Why would Pepsi consider her a uniting force of humanity on one of the most divisive issues facing America?  Again, these questions are unanswered.

Tackling social or environmental issues can be a useful way for a brand to create positive change. Further, it’s an effective way to establish and deepen emotional connections with consumers.

Many have done it successfully in the past, but they do so by following the above lessons as a core part of their cause-branding approach. Unfortunately for Pepsi, all this ad does is create one more addition to the Hall of Shame of corporate advertising.

Presumably this was Pepsi’s attempt to maintain relevancy. Yet, it has the opposite effect.

Top 6 Strategy Questions for a Groundbreaking Approach to Sustainability

Top 6 Strategy Questions for a Groundbreaking Approach to Sustainability

Scalable. Power through. Synergy. Hard stop. Run up the flagpole. These are all terms and phrases that sounded powerful when I first heard them, but have now become so overused it’s hard for me not to roll my eyes. And indeed, many of them are on a list featured in a Business Insider article “20 Annoying Phrases You Should Stop Saying at Work.”  (Beware, you may cringe at your own frequent use of most of these turns. It’s okay, I’m right there with you and as a consultant, I’m the guiltiest of all because this is our daily lingo.)

What’s missing from the list? Strategy. Strategy has become a tired term. In companies, it’s common to see things being passed around as a strategy when, truthfully, they’re just metrics. Or mission statements. Or frameworks. Or, just simply, a PowerPoint presentation riddled with strong opinions.

To become a strategy, a company’s approach to a given problem has to address what the company is going to do and what it is not going to do. And it only becomes strategic – truly strategic – when the strategy is accompanied by a fact-based understanding of why those decisions were made.

So how do you do this? A SWOT analysis is a great starting point. But I’ve found sometimes a SWOT template isn’t as dimensional as one needs for sustainability and it doesn’t necessarily provoke groundbreaking thinking. So I developed these six questions can help guide your team's work to create a strategic and breakthrough approach to sustainability: 

What do we do really well, better than anyone else?

This should be the core of any company. If your company doesn’t have a competitive advantage, it may be time to reassess a lot of things – including whether your company will be around much longer. There is no doubt, for example, that Walmart’s competitive differentiation is its everyday low prices. The key enabler, and its competitive advantage, of this is the company’s incredible operational expertise. It’s therefore no surprise they’ve leveraged this institutional operational knowledge of efficiency to improve the environmental footprint of their value chain as a centerpiece of its sustainability strategy.

What aren’t we doing that we should?

It’s quite possible that you’re missing something important in your sustainability strategy. Or, frankly, you’re hesitant to confront an uncomfortable reality.

This is where stakeholder engagement comes in to play. If your company is large enough, business leaders at environmental or labor organizations (and your employees!) likely have a point of view on what you’re not doing.  Listening to others is a fundamental way of gaining perspective on where your company is and where it should be.

I’ve led several stakeholder engagement efforts that have proven to be eye-opening for leaders in big companies. The value in these efforts in shaping your sustainability strategy is hard to measure, but is worth it. 

What could put our business in jeopardy? (Or at least make it much harder to do what we do?)

Each company faces risk. But knowing what can go wrong and its potential impact on your business is crucial. Let’s take water for example. For people like me who live in the Northeast, water conservation is not a daily topic. We take access to water for granted. But if I were running a company that is national and dependent on water, that would change my perspective. Agricultural companies are an obvious example. Less obvious would be the restaurant industry. Think about it, if a restaurant’s water supply is scaled back or completely cut off, it can’t function. They can’t cook the food, they can’t clean the kitchen, they can’t clean the bathrooms. It’s a huge risk to the business. Identifying these risks and addressing them head-on are crucial for a true strategy to be comprehensive enough.

Are we “burying the lead?”

There are likely a few things that your company has punted on (another overused term) that it needs to address. And “legacy programs” are often the hardest to kill because the mental mantra of “But, we’ve always done that!” can rule culture.

You can’t be all things to all people. You just can’t. In all likelihood, there is something you’re doing that you should either stop completely or de-emphasize.  It’s not only cluttering up your strategy, but also cluttering up your messaging.

Think of it this way, what should be prominently featured in your next sustainability report? If you wind up doing a feature on the recycling efforts of your company’s paper recycling initiative, well, that’s not strategic. If, however, you talk about your company’s overall efforts to go to zero waste in order to force inefficiencies out of the value chain, well, all of a sudden that’s a lot more interesting.

What’s the real problem?

Get honest. Like, seriously honest. If you don’t have an honest diagnosis of the core problem at hand, you’re looking at things through rose-colored glasses. You’re letting the taste of your company’s proverbial Kool-Aid taint your responsibility to steer the company’s resources in a strategic way.  If you know you have human rights abuses in your supply chain, you have to know why. Is it because of a lack of enforcement of your company’s human rights policy? Or is a lack of transparency into the supply chain?

You have to connect the issue (human rights abuses) with at least three identifiable root causes (and their sub-causes) in order to understand the tactics to put into place to address the problem. You can choose to address one, two, or all – but it’s the act of fully understanding the dynamics that makes you strategic.

Is it scary?

If you simply answer those questions, it’s likely going to be an acceptable solution to your company’s strategy. However, it likely won’t be the most inspiring. Employees, investors, and reporters want something more. And you should, too.

Do you want to lead a strategy that is acceptable or do you want to implement a strategy that is groundbreaking?

The question of “Is it scary?” became a mantra for my colleagues and I as we developed what became an award-winning program. We wanted to make the program big, but our ideas got stuck in the comfort of what was achievable. So, with each idea we challenged ourselves: how could we make it scarier? This can come in the form of the scale (how many people you aim to reach), scope (the number of issues to take on, but beware of spreading yourself too thin), or intensity (the timeframe to achieve it in).

As odd as it sounds, it’s probably a good sign you have a breakthrough-level of ambition if you hear an inner voice say “If we don’t succeed at this, we’ll be fired.”

Creating a groundbreaking sustainability strategy is not easy, but these questions should give you a new perspective. What have you found to be helpful? Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter or on here.

Four Tips: What to do if your CEO doesn't "get" CSR

Four Tips: What to do if your CEO doesn't "get" CSR

Not every company can have a CEO like Paul Polman. As head of Unilever, Polman is widely regarded as one of the leaders in promoting sustainability as core to his company's business strategy. In fact, years ago I collaborated with friend and colleague Ellen Weinreb on a research project where Polman was named a Pioneer of Sustainability.  But to be blunt, most CEOs aren't like him. And to be even blunter, many... well, they just don't get it. 

So what's a corporate social responsibility (CSR) professional to do if your CEO doesn't care about CSR or, worse, opposes the very idea? Through the course of my career, I learned several approaches to shift the mindset:

Appeal to Legacy

Let's be honest, in order to become a CEO, you have to have an ego. So use that.

According to a study by Equilar, the average CEO tenure is 7.4 years. To me, that's just long-enough to have true influence, but short enough that the CEO will feel a sense of urgency to make their mark.  CSR / sustainability can be a means to get a CEO to impact the company's business model and the company's culture. If the CEO is successful at both, their legacy will survive long beyond the CEO's tenure. Ego = stroked. 


Some of the "old guard" thinking about CSR / sustainability is stereotyped by a quote from Milton Friedman - the (in)famous University of Chicago economist. The quote goes: 

“There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”

But as I covered way back in 2009 in "What Milt Wrought Right" on my previous blog, this quote is taken out of context. From a CSR leader's standpoint, it sounds greedy. But if you actually read the essay in which the quote comes from, Friedman spells out the times when CSR-related efforts are acceptable and indeed in a company's (shareholders') best interest. Using one of the most well-known free market thinkers as a surprising voice in favor of sustainability can be a powerful jiu-jitsu move. You're essentially using someone's strength against them and winning in the end. Nice!

Discover Your Data

Inside every company is a treasure trove of data. This information can be used to keep the focus on what's important: proof of a positive impact on the business bottom line as well as people and the planet. This is as opposed to distractions such as making arguments based on logic and emotion (which have their place, mind you).

As I've learned, finding the underlying story in your data can be natural leverage points. Search for the proof points in cost savings through efficiency gains, product innovation, customer demand (particularly for business-to-business, anecdotal information can be very useful), regulatory avoidance, risk mitigation or employee sentiment (this is not an exhaustive list).

This can be quantitative, such as calculating the cost savings with a 10% reduction in energy usage. Or it can be qualitative. As a real life example, I once worked with a consumer packaged goods company where the employees told executives they never buy their own products in the grocery store because they didn't want to serve the products to their kids. They didn't feel proud because the food was unhealthy and over-processed. How could the executives expect their marketers to market their food if they didn't want to serve it to their own children? Yikes. After this evidence, the company took steps to began to change.

Focus internally

It's tempting to cite consumer studies that show an increased level of consumer demand for corporate involvement in CSR. But consumers have a fickle fascination with CSR. Sometimes their purchasing behavior doesn't match their aspirations.

I've found that it's easier to focus internally instead. This can be as simple as conducting focus groups or surveys of employees to gauge their level of interest in sustainable business practices. Always interested in getting my hands on data, I once conducted a survey after a major company-wide CSR initiative and asked three simple questions: 

  • Through this initiative, did you create new business contacts in your community?
  • Did you learn to work better as a team in preparation for and in executing this initiative?
  • Did this initiative make you feel proud to work for this company?  

The results came back very positive and the data points were a part of the debrief we gave the CEO. It was one of the building blocks that got our project funded for a second year with (almost) no questions asked. 

Your thoughts

It can be an uphill battle if your C-Suite isn't behind you. But these four tips are a good place to start to seed the idea that sustainability can be something more than a cost center.  

But there are more ideas out there. What ways have you discovered to help C-Suite executives "see the light?"  Give me a shout through this site or on Twitter and let me know. 


The Six Reasons Why Companies Actually Wind Up Embracing CSR

The Six Reasons Why Companies Actually Wind Up Embracing CSR

Awhile back I wrote an article titled “The Six Reasons Why Companies Should Embrace Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).”  In fact, it was one of my most popular posts, thank you very much all you readers out there.

However, in fancy political science- and economics- speak, that was what they call a “normative analysis” – a perspective based on fact that describes how something should be and not how something actually is. So, for example, we may suppose that politicians during presidential debates should use the national stage they’ve been given to advance the dialogue on important socio-political issues. But do they?

So today I write what is called a “positive analysis” regarding why companies ultimately wind up embracing CSR. So for example, rather than try to have an intellectual discussion about policy, it seems our politicians us their platforms to try to shut the other guy down, hoping for a Lloyd Bensten-esque zinger that will stand the test of time (“…I knew Jack Kennedy… Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”)

After all, not every company embraces CSR because it now understands the opportunities it derives from enlightened self-interest. Here are six possible explanationsof why a company could choose to be socially responsible:

Reason #1: It’s just the way it has always been

Some companies have been oriented toward social and environmental responsibility since they were created, often due to the values of the company’s founders. Two companies that come to mind are the construction material manufacturer USG and high-end furniture designer Herman-Miller. Take a look at their websites: USG has a story about a “Century of Sustainability” and Herman-Miller is, among many other things, now powered with 100% renewable energy. From my experience their sustainability culture runs deep.

Reason # 2: CEO interest

A few years back, CEO Muhtar Kent referred to himself as the Chief Sustainability Officer of Coca-Cola. In December of 2009, I was on a conference call with Mr. Kent and the head of Greenpeace. Yes, Coca-Cola and Greenpeace participated in the same press conference as “friends,” not enemies.

Need another example? Walmart. Despite its reputation, if you haven’t heard about its impressive efforts on the environment, you’re missing something.  A 2006 front-page article in FORTUNE outlined how CEO Mike Duke was leading the charge to make Walmart look at its impact differently (For an interesting read, check out author Marc Gunther’s update).

Reason # 3: Cost

There are two ways to grow profit: sell more (assuming your products/services are profitable) or cut costs. Indeed, cutting costs is a great way to help your company “see the light” in sustainability. It can even help you if you’re in a business-to-business (B2B) company, such as UPS.  Through its logistics expertise and technology, UPS claims to have saved Mercedes Electric Supply,a customer based in Florida, 20% on its bottom line through transportation consolidation. UPS was also able to help the company offset its carbon emissions through UPS.

Would these cost savings have happened anyway without sustainability? Probably. Every company is motivated to keep the lid on costs. But sustainability offers a way for companies to see things differently. Creating a sophisticated database to cut mileage out of transportation routes sounds great, but it becomes sexy when you add in the idea of saving your customers money and cutting down on fuel usage and carbon emissions.

Reason # 4: Legislation

Like it or not, sometimes it takes the visible hand of government to make things happen. Through court decisions, regulations, or legislation, companies and industries can be forced into social and environmentally responsible practices. An example of this is the Corporate Average Fuel Economystandards, which set a floor on the average mile per gallon of a car maker’s fleet.

Reason # 5: Overzealous marketers

In one word, greenwashing. This is essentially when a company stakes a claim to its record on the environment regardless of whether it is genuinely involved in protecting the planet. There’s now even a “Greenwashing Index” which uses crowdsourcing to find and rate environmentally oriented advertising.

To be clear, overzealous marketers aren’t necessarily practicing social responsibility when they greenwash. But it does explain some of the impetus behind companies touting environmentally responsible message.

Reason # 6: Oops

Sometimes it takes a disaster to get companies to embrace CSR and employee safety. Take a look at this 2010 ABC article that outlines the poor safety record of BP leading up to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But now if you pull up the safety section of BP’s web site, the very first sentence you see is “The change programme we put in place following the Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill in 2010 is reinforcing a culture where everyone is focused on safety and managing operational risk.” Quite a contrast, no?

As far as I’m concerned, ultimately it doesn’t matter how a company enters into the fold of CSR/sustainability. What does matter is whether it is genuinely making decisions based on the impact on people, profit, and the planet.  Companies aren’t perfect. But more and more, some of them are using sustainability to paint a vision of the future that should and could be created. Now, if only the same could be said about politicians.


This article was originally published on our old blog.

The 6 Reasons Why Companies Should Embrace CSR

The 6 Reasons Why Companies Should Embrace CSR

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is not going to solve the world’s problems. If it were that easy, the problems would have been solved by now. Rather, CSR is a way for companies to benefit themselves while also benefitting society. When I define CSR to the uninitiated, I typically get three reactions. To a few, it evokes a response that asks, “Isn’t that a bunch of greenwashing?” And sometimes they use a not-so-nice word to describe male bovine excrement instead of greenwashing.  To some, my definition sounds like an inspiring call to action to soothe the ills of capitalism. And to others, CSR is like a begrudging call to Woodstock to sing Kumbaya – something only “hippies” could dream up.

So what’s a CSR professional supposed to do when faced with such a varied response? Typically, I step on top of my soapbox to declare the six business reasons why companies should embrace corporate social responsibility. Companies that “get it” are the ones that are using CSR (or sustainability as I prefer to call it) as a way to push the following business processes into the organization:

  1. Innovation – I know, I know, it’s an over-used term. Just typing the word into Amazon will bring up nearly 150,000 items. But in the context of CSR, innovation is a huge benefit to a company and society. For example, I recently watched a video of a brief talk by Geoff McDonald who is the Unilever Global VP for HR, Marketing, Communications and Sustainability.  Using the “lens of sustainability” as McDonald described it, Unilever was able to innovate new products such as a hair conditioner that uses less water. Without sustainability, the company’s research and development efforts possibly wouldn’t have led to such a product.
  2. Cost savings – One of the easiest places for a company to start engaging in sustainability is to use it as a way to cut costs. Whether it’s using less packaging or less energy, these savings add up quickly. For example, General Mills is on a path to reduce its energy savings by 20% by 2015. According to its 2011 CSR report, after installing energy monitoring meters on several pieces of equipment at its Covington, GA plant, the company saved $600,000.
  3. Brand differentiation – In the past, brand differentiation was one of the primary reasons why companies should embrace CSR. Companies such as Timberland were able to find their voice and incorporate the company’s values into their business model. However, as CSR has become more commonplace, using CSR to differentiate your brand is getting harder to do. For example, the “Cola Wars” is one of the longest running rivalries in business. Coke and Pepsi are constantly looking to grab as much market share as they can from each other. Yet they are both adopting similar, although slightly different, approaches to CSR. Both Pepsi and Coke are pursuing strategies of zero net water usage. Both companies offer water bottles made from sustainable packaging as well. In the end, although neither company is necessarily going to see strong differentiation benefits, I see the diminishing returns on brand differentiation as a sign that CSR is taking hold and is not just a fad.
  4. Long-term thinking – “The only reason we’re doing sustainability is to drive the growth of Unilever,” McDonald said in the video mentioned above. Indeed, CSR is an effort to look at the company’s long-term interest and ensuring that the company’s future is… well… sustainable. Hence, that’s why I prefer the term sustainability to CSR. It is a shift from worrying about the next fiscal quarter’s financial results to the impact business decisions today have on financial (and social) results ten years from now.
  5. Customer engagement – To some extent, what’s the point of doing CSR if no one knows about it? For the past few years, Walmart has established itself as a leader in the environment. Yes, you read that correctly, Walmart is a leader in environmentalism. In 2008, Walmart ran an ad campaigndesigned to raise awareness about the environment and the product choices consumers could make. Using CSR can help you engage with your customers in new ways – and since the message is about something “good,” it can often be a more “permissible” way to talk to your customers. This is actually an underused tool for business-to-business companies.
  6. Employee engagement – Along similar lines, if your own employees don’t know what’s going on within your organization, you’re missing an opportunity. Companies like Sara Lee created a cross-functional, global Sustainability Working Team to help create a strategy for sustainability. At a more grass roots level, the Solo Cup Company created the Sustainability Action Network to activate employees in community service focused on the company’s CSR priorities.

To be clear, these are the reasons why most companies should enact CSR. In truth, companies often become involved in CSR for different reasons, which I’ll write about in future posts.

This isn’t to say that companies are perfect. Or, as I stated at the beginning of this article, that CSR is the panacea to the world’s problems. But it certainly does start to move the needle toward an economy that is much closer to one where I would like to conduct business.



This article was originally posted on our old blog