Do Brands Live in a Parallel Universe?

parallel universe
Image Credit – Flickr/Chris Bentley

Hardly a week goes by that we do not see a brand succumb to foot-in-mouth disease. Size of company does not offer immunity from embarrassing one’s self. Two iconic brands have faced a PR crisis recently. First, Pepsico had to deal with fallout from a video that was widely criticized as being tone deaf and self-serving. Pepsi tried to co-opt the Black Lives Matter cause, attempting to inject its brand into the conversation. Its choice of Kendall Jenner to have a starring role in the “Live for Now” video added fuel to the perception that Pepsi was out of touch.

What saved Pepsi from even more scorn? United Airlines. A video showing a United passenger being roughed up while being dragged off a United plane drew the ire of the flying public. United’s weak response to the incident exacerbated ill will toward the United brand. Thankfully, brands should be able to learn from missteps like those made by Pepsico and United Airlines and avoid similar embarrassing situations. They should, but alas they do not.

Make It Three

The latest inductee into to the Marketing Hall of Shame is Adidas. The brand put itself in a bad spot with a marketing misstep in its Boston Marathon sponsorship activation. Adidas is a long-time partner of the Boston Athletic Association, with its sponsorship going back to 1992. Adidas reached out to runners of Monday’s Boston Marathon with an email the next morning. It was a good idea with a very bad subject line.

Adidas Boston Marathon email

The pain of the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon is still felt by many runners and Bostonians. A message from anyone that says “you survived” brings back the sting to many touched by the tragedy.

It does not take a marketing or PR expert to know the headline is troubling. I asked my 17-year-old son if he remembered what happened at the Boston Marathon a few years ago. He said “yes.” I showed him the Adidas email subject line. His eyes immediately widened as if saying “how could they?”

Brands as Apologists

Social media has become a sort of police force for bad brand behavior. Brands are called out for words or actions deemed to be in poor taste. It is a level of accountability that brands have not had to live up to in the past. Brands shift into apology mode quickly in an attempt to soothe bad blood and often, to justify what they said or did. Adidas apologized the day after sending the “you survived” email, posting the following message on social media.

The apology offered by Adidas is refreshing in that it did not point a finger or attempt to justify the offensive wording. At the same time, it is troubling that Adidas would admit “there was no thought given to the insensitive email subject line…” I assume the brand is managed by Adidas employees. Thinking about the meaning of brand messages should be among their job duties.

What is Going On Here?

Adidas stated the obvious by saying no thought was given to wording of the subject line. The question is why it happens. Blunders like those committed by Pepsico, United Airlines, and Adidas paint a picture of brands existing in a parallel universe. Their words and actions are incompatible with norms of the people they want to serve. Among the reasons for this disconnect are:

  • They think they know their customers, but they don’t. Missteps occur  because customers do not think or behave in ways a brand expects. United Airlines will throw a few more compensatory dollars at bumped passengers until they do what United wants—take another flight. It did not happen in the case of the roughed up passenger, and now United is paying much, much more in lost brand equity, customers, and market value.
  • They put brand welfare ahead of customer welfare. Brand marketers are hopelessly corrupted, but it is not their fault. They live and breathe the brand. It is easy to get sucked into that world. I understand why Pepsi marketers thought the Live for Now video was a good idea. They saw Pepsi as endorsing “power to the people” through grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter. The company was taken aback by the criticism. The problem was Pepsi focused more on creating favorable associations with its brand than showing concern for its audience when it comes to social issues.

The Silver Lining

It is easy to criticize brands for their marketing fails. But, we must remember that brands are managed by humans. Humans make mistakes. Even the most tightly run operation will fail customers or the public in some way. It is how they respond that will influence brand perceptions going forward.

Another positive as I see it is one I share with my students whenever we discuss the latest marketing blunder. The practice of marketing will never be perfected. Thus, there will always be opportunities for someone to succeed by doing their part to practice marketing more effectively.


Limited Time Offer: The Ultimate Tease?


Marketers have long used “limited time offer” as a tactic to create scarcity and build a sense of urgency to take action. I fondly remember seeing TV commercials as a youngster that used the call to action of “order before midnight tonight” to get the cassette or 8-track (it has been a while since I was a kid) at the low, low price. At the time, it baffled me why that particular call was used, especially since it was used every time I saw the commercial! In hindsight, I get the attempt to create urgency to order before the deal is no longer available.

Baja Blast in a Bottle: Don’t Get Used To It

Memories of those TV commercials from my youth were triggered when reading about Mtn Dew’s plans for the introduction of its wildly popular Baja Blast product. Yes, Mtn Dew Baja Blast is both wildly popular and new. The popularity of the Baja Blast product has been cultivated at Taco Bell restaurants, where the flavor has been sold exclusively until now. In fact, Mtn Dew Baja Blast is number two in sales for Taco Bell, trailing only Pepsi. This month, Pepsi introduced Baja Blast in bottles and cans… but only while supplies last. Expectations are that the popularity of the product will lead to selling through of the inventory by the end of summer. So if you are a Baja Blast lover you should do two things: 1) stock up on your beverage and 2) don’t get used to having it in cans and bottles because when it is gone, it is gone.

That’s not Nice

Before we accuse Pepsi of teasing customers or suggesting it is not playing nice by dangling Baja Blast in front of consumers for only a brief period, there is a strategy behind the product’s timing. Two statistics make a compelling argument for the Baja Blast summer promotion:

  1. 75% of Baja Blast fans say its availability is the number one reason they visit Taco Bell
  2. Only 40% of Mtn Dew consumers are aware of the Baja Blast flavor

These stats taken together suggest a huge opportunity exists for Pepsi and even greater one for Taco Bell if more exposure is created for Baja Blast among the 60% of Mtn Dew customers that do not know about it. Building awareness and interest in Baja Blast through retail channels during the limited time offer could transfer to Taco Bell visits later in order to meet demand for the flavor. So, instead of calling out Pepsi as a tease for stirring excitement for Mtn Dew Baja Blast only to take it away, a tip of the hat may be in order for the creative means used to build interest for the brand as well as for its partner, Taco Bell.

A Limited Time Offer Like No Other

A final distinction between the introduction of Mtn Dew Baja Blast in bottles and cans compared to the typical limited time offer is the marketing resources being committed to it. A typical limited time offer for CPGs often relies mainly on point-of-purchase materials and in-store promotions. Mtn Dew produced a video featuring product endorsers Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Danny Davis, and Paul Rodriguez. Such efforts are usually reserved for product launches that are needed to survive long term. Not only is long term success not needed for the Baja Blast retail introduction, it is not even desired. This situation is different- Pepsi protected the exclusivity of Baja Blast for Taco Bell while at the same time potentially boosting excitement for the Mtn Dew brand… even if only for the summer.

Source: Ad Age- Mtn Dew Breaks Baja Blast Out of Taco Bell


New Position for Super Bowl Ad Mainstays: Sidelines

Advertising aired during the Super Bowl each year creates nearly as much excitement as the big game itself. Why not? It is an event in which 90 million or more viewers are tuned in, and the lore of Super Bowl commercials makes viewers more receptive to commercials than they are the other 364 days of the year. The popularity of the Super Bowl has driven up the price for a 30-second spot to the point that this year’s game will cost advertisers $3 million.

The Super Bowl is as popular as ever, but Super Bowl advertising may be another story. Some longtime advertisers have opted not buy spots this year. Most notable is Pepsi, which announced its intention to focus on a cause-related initiative, The Pepsi Refresh Project. FedEx, another veteran Super Bowl marketer, has indicated that it, too, will not buy commercial time. Escalating ad rates have led Pepsi and FedEx to question whether a Super Bowl ad buy is the best use of resources. Evidently, the answer was “no.”

The Super Bowl is a marquee event, but in today’s highly connected world there are many options for reaching and engaging audiences. The decisions by Pepsi and FedEx in no way suggest that marketing through sports is losing its power or appeal. These companies have audiences to reach beyond what the Super Bowl can deliver. Super Bowl ad sales remain strong as more than 90% of the spots are sold already. Given that we are in the early stages of emerging from a recession, that figure is impressive. Super Bowl advertisers come and go; it would not be surprising to see Pepsi or FedEx step off the sidelines in the future and advertise during the Super Bowl again.

MediaBuyerPlanner – “Pepsi Drops Super Bowl Ads”