How to Avoid Purpose Washing and Consumer Backlash: Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner Spot

Corporate purpose is becoming ever more commonplace as brands across industries are investing in social good marketing. Yet not all purpose-driven campaigns yield the desired results. While it’s encouraging that companies are heeding consumer demand for a better world, it’s important to avoid “purpose washing” that can quickly lead to consumer backlash.

Last week the internet and social media exploded with complaints about Pepsi’s recent spot featuring pop culture icon, Kendall Jenner, amidst a crowd of young protestors. In the ad, Jenner united the uprising with stone-faced policemen by giving an officer a can of Pepsi. Viewers felt the advert presented insincerity that made light of the heightened political climate, and offered a disingenuous commercialized solution to real world problems.

While Pepsi’s original intention was to position itself as part of a global movement and speak to young consumers’ inkling to activate, the plan backfired. The soda maker didn’t focus on any specific movement or show how the brand was truly making the world a better place, let alone offer consumers an outlet to get involved. Ultimately, purposeful communications must be authentic, accountable and transparent, not play lip service to social change that isn’t real. Social good marketing done right can strengthen public image, inspire consumer goodwill and advocacy, and position your brand as a social change-maker; however, when done wrong it can lead to a reputation crisis for your brand.

Here are three ways to avoid purpose washing and consumer backlash:

1) Evidence Authenticity: In today’s world, consumers have a hard time trusting brands. In fact, a recent McCann study found that 42 percent of American’s put less trust in brands today than they did 20 years ago. What’s more, 84 percent say they believe companies have the power to build a better world, and 48 percent think that brands must clarify their identity and role in society. In other words, consumers want companies to play a leading role in social transformation but don’t believe brands have committed to or defined their purpose.

Trust, unlike views, can’t be bought or sold; it must be earned over time. And the trust you spend years creating could be lost overnight with a poorly executed business decision. Therefore, it’s essential to honestly communicate about your brand’s business practices and ethos in a meaningful and authentic manner.

An excellent example of an advertisement that truly displayed authenticity was Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign. In this short film, Always featured real conversations with women about what they thought it meant to act “like a girl.” The brand then spoke with children about what they thought and highlighted the transformational shift in perception about women’s role in society that typically happens during puberty. Thus, through this innovative advert the women’s hygiene company shed light on the unhealthy stereotypes women face every day and joined a global cultural conversation.

The key takeaway here is that showing how your brand adds value to a larger movement through real human stories that focus on pertinent societal issues is a powerful way to spark an authentic emotional connection with consumers.

2) Be Part of the Solution: The plethora of global crisis we face today — from hunger, to disease, to environmental degradation — can be overwhelming and make people unsure of how to participate in building a better world. If your brand can offer consumers an avenue to making a difference you will be rewarded with goodwill, word of mouth advertising and ultimately, purchases.

A company doing a great job of inviting consumers to join them in building a better world is State Farm. In a recent ad the insurance company told a story about a man who felt inundated with the problems in the world and didn’t know how he could help. At the end of the spot State Farm offered a solution to take action by participating in its community outreach program, Neighborhood Of Good.

Essentially, to be part of the solution you must show consumers how your brand is serving a higher purpose and invite them to join in your purpose-driven efforts.

3) Participate in Social Movements: Showing how your brand is leading a movement or advancing a cause that impacts people or planet is an amazing way to distinguish your conscious company and carve out a competitive advantage. In this approach, it’s important to focus on the movement itself, instead of highlighting your products or services.

A company that does an excellent job of championing social and environmental movements is Patagonia. The outdoor apparel brand recently lead the Utah Outdoor Retailer Show to pick a new location for its biannual conference — which generates about 50 million in revenue for the state each year — to another location because of the Governor’s attempt to delist Bears Ears National Monument. What’s more, Patagonia partnered with Google to launch a virtual reality storytelling campaign to bring awareness about efforts to preserve the Monument.

The lesson here is that using your brand to highlight important issues impacting the planet not only fosters opportunities to create or strengthen purposeful partnerships, but also generates earned media, inspires consumer loyalty and provides amazing storytelling potential for your marketing initiative. Further, it positions your brand as a changemaker transforming the engine of capitalism to drive society towards sustainable and socially responsible future.

Today’s consumers want a better world, not meaningless ads. To avoid purpose washing and consumer backlash you must create relevant media that offers value, touches on complex issues impacting real people’s lives, speaks to societal movements, and nurtures an emotional connection in viewers. In turn, you will be rewarded with consumer advocacy, word of mouth advertising, and increased purchases as well as the satisfaction of being part of a global movement of social transformation fueled by contributory capitalism.

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Founder/CEO brand consultancy, We First, bestselling author of We First and Lead With We, host of podcast, Lead With We.

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Simon Mainwaring

Simon Mainwaring

Founder/CEO brand consultancy, We First, bestselling author of We First and Lead With We, host of podcast, Lead With We.

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