The Value of Authenticity

Once again, the internet is abuzz with controversy.

The source of the contention can be found in Pepsi’s most recent controversial commercial. The ad depicts a crowd of young, hip protesters seemingly led by Kendall Jenner, who offers a can of Pepsi to a cop, causing everyone to join hands and celebrate their bold living and perfect eyebrows. The company’s subsequent apology failed to improve their situation, and ultimately they took down the ad.

Amid the backlash, which came in many forms and for many different reasons, a Vice News article satirized Pepsi’s tone-deaf take on protests and police.  Even though it doesn’t outright spell it out, the article slams Jenner and Pepsi for trivializing a serious issue that is still at the top of America’s mind and using it to make a profit.

Specifically, Vice takes aim at Pepsi’s key message, “join the conversation,” to which the author responds “What Pepsi have failed to realize here is that authenticity is now marketable, and nobody is really going to go on a protest in order to say almost literally nothing.”

The line “authenticity is now marketable” in particular struck a chord with me. With the meteoric rise of social media and cause-related social marketing, more organizations are crafting campaigns that link their brands to concepts people can can believe in more so than just what they can buy.

This new style of socially-conscious consumerism can be crazy beneficial for brands. But if done wrong, it can also massively backfire, as we have seen with Pepsi. The make-or-break point all relies on how your audience perceives your motives.

“Audiences can see through branding messages that do not correlate to behaviour, and PR is your tool for illustrating your commitment to your brand values,” said Jessica Huie of the U.K.-based boutique PR firm JHPR.

Huie absolutely hits the nail on the head. I understand what Pepsi was trying to do with their messaging, but their execution fell flat because the image they tried to paint is so far removed from reality. They failed to convey authenticity in trying to resonate with activist Millennials because they were not being authentic. You can’t just throw in strategically-selected young, diverse people and a celebrity in your commercial and call it a day. If you’re going to make a social message, it needs to be researched in-depth and thoughtfully crafted — even if means not presenting your brand as the solution to a problem.

Curiously, Business Insider chided the company last year for trying too hard to appeal to “hipsters” and young people and ultimately coming off as fake and ineffective. The brand’s previous problems with conveying true authenticity is something they will have to carefully consider in the future.

Until then, they need to understand a key lesson that other brands can benefit from as well: When it comes to authenticity in public relations, you can’t just do it. You have to do it right.

Image from Vanity Fair.