3 Major Brands, 3 Major Mistakes: How Pepsi, United & SheaMoisture Could Have Avoided Their Marketing Backlash
The raging fires have dampened to flickering flames, but just like a fire that can ruin a home, there is still damage to recover from…
Over the past few weeks, there seems to have been blunder after blunder from major brands—followed by major backlash. From Pepsi’s short-sighted commercial featuring Kendall Jenner as a broker of peace using the sugary soft drink as a “white flag”, to United Airline’s global fall out after a doctor was abused and forcibly removed from a flight after refusing to voluntarily give up his seat, it has been quite the public relations zoo. More recently, Shea Moisture, a $700 million beauty brand that has historically catered to the unique skin and hair care needs of Black women, grossly underestimated the response (aka fallout) they would receive after launching a new line of commercials aimed at broadening their customer base.
In this age of social media and the internet, it’s never been more important for brands to have their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on in the hearts and minds of their customers. Unfortunately, some brands take for-granted both the loyalty of their customers and the impact one wrong move can make on that same loyalty.
In early April of this year, Pepsi rolled out a new commercial aimed at engaging millennial consumers. In a move that was highly criticized by the general public, the soft drink giant took a scene from a protest reminiscent of a #BlackLivesMatter demonstration, and placed Kendall Jenner right in the middle of it as the peacemaker. And how did she broker peace between the protesters and the police? Why a Pepsi of course!
Here’s the actual commercial which Pepsi removed from their site (and which Kendall Jenner still has up on her YouTube channel):
Although many people didn’t understand what was wrong with the commercial, most viewers of the ill-conceived commercial created such an uproar on social media that Pepsi almost immediately pulled it out of circulation and offered an apology: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
So what was Pepsi’s biggest mistake in this marketing faux-pas? They underestimated the seriousness of a social justice movement and overestimated their ability to successfully appropriate such a loaded issue for their own purposes of selling more product.
According to the Black Lives Matter web site:
“#BlackLivesMatter was created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for his crime, and dead 17-year old Trayvon was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder. Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist our dehumanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society. Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes.”
Given all that, Pepsi—and every other brand that believes a seemingly bright idea and limitless marketing budget can cure all—needs someone(s) on staff to advise them on issues such as race, social justice, inclusion, diversity and what their role should be (if any) in the most pressing issues of our day. They need someone who is willing to give them the side-eye when a campaign is about to go way off the rails and has the potential to hurt their brand.
Although there are some people who didn’t see a problem with the commercial and thought people were just being too overly sensitive and PC, I vehemently disagree on this point. Appropriating a social justice/civil rights movement for the purposes of profit and entertainment is unequivocally wrong—especially when the fight is still raging. Anyone who thinks otherwise is insensitive and ignorant of the racial justice movement that started more than 200 years ago and continues today.
BRAND LESSON #1: Don’t allow the potential for profits to cloud good judgement—especially when tackling such serious issues as social justice and civil rights.
BRAND LESSON #2: It might be a good time to seek out some diversity experts and keep them on speed-dial in case there are any future marketing light bulb moments that sound good in theory, but in practice may bring the wrong kind of publicity.
In an article from Bloomberg News on Pepsi’s marketing misstep, Laura Ries said it best: “Internet justice is strong and swift when it comes to ill-conceived advertising messages.”
If there was ever an inadequate, inappropriate, and insensitive initial response to an incident that had the potential to irreparably damage your brand, it would have to be United Airlines CEO’s answer when confronted with the abuse that occurred on his watch when a doctor who was forcibly removed from a flight for refusing to voluntarily give up his seat on a flight the airline overbooked.
On April 4, 2017, United Airlines found itself in the middle of a PR storm when passengers on flight 3411 posted a video showing Dr. David Dao being violently removed by Chicago law enforcement officers after refusing to voluntarily give up his seat. Apparently, United needed extra seats for their own employees and had overbooked the flight. When told that he would not give up his seat because he had patients to see the next day, airport security officers manhandled and dragged the doctor off the flight—but not after causing him a concussion, two lost teeth and a broken nose.
As the outcry grew on social media, here was United CEO, Oscar Munoz’s initial response to the incident in a message to his 80,000+ employees:
“Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night aboard United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville. While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clearer picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees.
“As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right…”
The initial statement given to the public was just as insensitive:
“Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation.“
The overbook situation?
The irony of it all is that Munoz had just been awarded Communicator of the Year by PR Week—a move PR Week’s editor responded to in the aftermath by stating, “It’s fair to say that if PRWeek was choosing its Communicator of the Year now, we would not be awarding it to Oscar Munoz.”
According to the Airline Quality Rating industry score for 2016, United Airlines came in 8th out of the 13 largest U.S. Airlines. Not at the bottom, but certainly no where near the top. As one of the biggest brands in the world, you know you’ve got work to do to improve your rankings. This incident certainly didn’t help to do that. And the initial response by the airline’s executives caused a global social media furor that resulted in a $1.4 billion drop in stock price the day after the video of the incident went viral.
BRAND LESSON #1: Regardless of your PR budget, don’t ever discount the power of social media. Videos, hashtags and Facebook posts have now become a powerful tool for change—and ridicule. Complaints from angry consumers can quickly cause damage to your brand if left unchecked or mishandled.
This video shows some of the most brutal memes from the #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos that came from Twitter users:
— azcentral (@azcentral) April 13, 2017
BRAND LESSON #2: When dealing with crisis communications, don’t assume that your corporate speak is going to be enough to appease the public and gloss over serious situations. Using words like “re-accommodate” to describe forcibly removing a passenger from your flight is what we now call an “alternative fact.” The public has come to expect the truth and when necessary, a sincere apology from those in leadership. People can be very forgiving, if you immediately admit your wrong and state how you’re going to rectify the situation. Coming back and apologizing after first laying the blame on someone or something else makes your brand appear inauthentic and untrustworthy.
**Since this incident, United has continued to find itself embroiled in controversy from major mishaps—from a giant rabbit that died in flight, to more recently sending a woman who only spoke French to San Francisco instead of Paris.
Wait…San Franciso? Paris?
I got nothin’.
What do you do when you have a loyal client base that has helped grow your brand to a value of $700 million, but you need to expand your audience in order to remain competitive in the marketplace? Whatever you do, don’t do what SheaMoisture did. In late April of 2017, the 26-year-old beauty and skin care products company launched a commercial as part of a new marketing campaign. Within hours, there was a furor on social media by Shea Moisture’s main customers—African American women.
The problem? Although the company had built its multi-million dollar brand by providing natural products to women of color with textured hair, the new commercial featured three White women with straight hair and one Black woman. Here’s the original commercial:
It didn’t help that in recent years, SheaMoisture had been accused of changing the formulation of their products to appeal to a less textured hair type. So already, there were Black women who had started deserting the brand.
Within hours, there were posts from (some formerly) loyal customers calling out the beauty products company for selling out. As Pepsi and United demonstrated, there is nothing like social media commentary from upset consumers to get your attention. And the natural hair community is no exception. In fact, it’s one of the most vocal communities online. A few of those comments included:
“I really enjoyed Shea Moisture products, and it made me even happier knowing I was supporting a Black brand. I will use the rest of the products I have, but I will not be giving them my business going forward.” (YouTube commenter)
“I embrace any company of any person trying to grow but during your growth don’t forget those who help you get to that platform.” (YouTube commenter)
— Dee Sifflet (@napturalife) April 29, 2017
— iLuvEritrea (@iLuvEritrea) April 29, 2017
Since the backlash (which was fast and furious), the CEO, Richelieu Dennis has appeared on several media outlets to explain the intent of the marketing campaign. To their credit, SheaMoisture responded almost immediately to customer complaints on social media stating that:
“…Please know that our intention was not – and would never be – to disrespect our community, and as such, we are pulling this piece immediately because it does not represent what we intended to communicate… we should know better. Thank you all, as always, for the honest and candid feedback…Thank you, #SheaFam, for being there for us, even when we make mistakes.”
However, most of this could have been avoided had the brand done a few things:
BRAND LESSON #1: Never take your most loyal customers for-granted. The reason why there was such a boomerang response from the Black community was because—like it or not—they felt some ownership in the brand having helped to build it to a multi-million dollar international brand. There is nothing wrong with wanting to expand your audience, but there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.
When it comes to a brand making changes in their business that has a broader impact, it’s critical to overcommunicate with your customers so they don’t feel like they’ve just been hit with a bucket of ice cold water when those changes come. As a consumer segment that has, until more recently, had a difficult time finding products in the hair and beauty aisles to suit their unique needs, Black women felt betrayed by a brand they thought had their best interests at heart. They felt taken for-granted when they saw the new commercial(s) which lacked, what they felt, was a representation of who they are. Never mind that there was a whole series of commercials lined up for the campaign which featured a more diverse group of women—you only get one chance to make a first impression. And unfortunately for SheaMoisture, that first impression was incredibly damaging to their brand.
BRAND LESSON #2: When looking to expand your customer base, consider creating a sub-brand or new brand altogether to cater to that audience. I respect Richelieu Dennis’ efforts to integrate the “ethnic” products aisle into the broader “beauty” aisle in retail stores. I get it: he believes that beauty should know no color and that we should all embrace multiculturalism (hence the ill-conceived and ill-received commercial).
However, the reality is, those kind of changes take time. Mainstream brands like Revlon and L’Oreal know this. That’s why they created (or acquired) separate products lines—African Pride and Mizani—for their “ethnic” customers. Their money is still going in the same pot, but they recognized that that particular audience had unique needs and sensibilities they needed to cater to while not alienating their base customer.
BONUS LESSON: When making marketing and communications decisions for your brand, don’t operate in a bubble. The question has been asked repeatedly, “Who gave the green light to that campaign? Was there anyone from the current customer base who gave some insight as to whether or not releasing that first commercial as the forerunner of the campaign was a good idea? If not, why not?”
Despite the fact that SheaMoisture still has a hole to dig out of, they have a large base of customers who continue to patronize their brand. What they’ll need to do in the future is a better job of communicating with their customer base about new changes, as well as highlighting some of the more impactful work they do in the communities in which they do business. Today’s consumer is often more loyal to brands that give back.
The past few months have provided many learning opportunities for brands and businesses on what not to do. As we’ve seen since the advent of the internet and social media, you can’t run or hide when your brand is under attack by the public. And your initial response to the kind of backlash that can occur when you have a very public marketing/PR disaster on your hands better be good. In fact, done right, your response to a crisis can actually set you up for future success (as it did with Steve Harvey and the Miss Universe snafu). Almost always, your ongoing response to the public is going to be more important than the crisis itself.
And that’s what sets successful brands apart from the ones that die out: not the crisis itself—because if you’re in business long enough, you will go through crisis—but how you respond to your stakeholders, customers and the general public after a fall out. How do you show you’ve heard their concerns and are taking real steps to address the issue—and hopefully make sure it never happens again?
Time will tell.
I want to hear what you have to say: What do you think Pepsi/United/Shea Moisture could have done differently to avoid or mitigate their recent PR crises?
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