Falling for the Wrong Influencer: the Pepsi story

woman in a yellow dress fallen from the stairs

The reaction to the latest Pepsi advert is clear: image is not enough. We need a motive behind the visuals. With the rise of a highly politically aware youth engaging in a variety of protest forms in person and online, Pepsi’s ad campaign definitely missed the mark due to not engaging with the reality of this conversation. A generic protest, filled with attractive young people, does not seem like a common protest experience. It has led to the same question time and again: what are they protesting for in this scene? Pepsi’s marketers seem to have forgotten the real message behind their advert, as well as the demographic this advert is poorly trying to entice. With modern marketing, the mantra is listen and engage. With their latest ad, Pepsi appears to have done neither.


Instead of engaging with lower level, and more authentic, Influencers and listening to their thoughts and political concerns, they went with star Influencer turned celebrity, Kendall Jenner. They seem to have deliberately avoided addressing any of the political concerns that their younger demographic have. Instead, they had a generic protest turned party that seemed only to crash obliviously through the contemporary issues of their target audience. While navigating the world of politics is risky for brands, with the rise of movements such as #StopFundingHate it is becoming more vital. This Pepsi advert clearly shows that addressing but not engaging will fall flat in modern marketing and modern politics.


An example of a brand navigating this difficult landscape would be Skittles during the 2016 presidential race, who objected – via a journalist – to Trump Jr’s analogising Skittles with refugees: “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy. We will respectfully refrain from further commentary as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing.” Other than this statement, they refused to be drawn into the debate any further and did not attempt to garner marketing from the mention. In this instance Skittles clearly were showing that in their strategy, marketing and politics do not mix.

So how can brands avoid this outcome?

First, by choosing Influencers that fit with their brand image or campaign idea. Want a political campaign? Then choose politically vocal and engaged Influencers. This means not picking the first star Influencer that you can think of, but taking time to search long-tail Influencers with real authenticity and engagement, or by using an IM platform. Kendall Jenner is one of the most followed Instagramers in the world and currently has 78.2 million followers on Instagram (as of 12/04/2017), but the reaction to Pepsi’s advert shows that follower numbers alone is not an instant guarantee for success. Brands need to choose an Influencer that reflects their values and who is consistent with the message they want to spread – though what Pepsi’s message was in this latest advertisement is still unclear.


Second, listen to these Influencers and work in collaboration with them. Co-creation is a vital part of Influencer Marketing, as has been featured on our blog previously. The politically engaged Influencer that this campaign called for would have been able to point out the issues from the start, and would have helped develop a new concept. The defiant image of Ieshia Evans this advert, however inadvertently, mimics is both monumentally touching and extraordinary. The protest in Baton Rouge of Evans was incredibly brave, and the image captured at that moment of her standing calmly before police officers has the power to resonate for long after the moment has passed. This image has been echoed recently in the UK with protester Saffiyah Khan whose image was captured during a march in Birmingham, smiling defiantly at EDL leader Ian Crossland.

These images are real and powerful. While images of this power and virality might be a marketer’s dream, they cannot be turned into a promotion for a soft drink. It shows that simply jumping on something that seems relevant, like protests, without engaging with the topic is not an effective use of word of mouth marketing. You need to engage with the topic, be a knowledgeable voice in the conversation, and this can be achieved by using topical Influencers who are experts in their areas and engaged with current events.

Looking at a successful example:

Pepsi’s rival Coca-Cola’s Influencer Marketing campaign worked very well and became the most liked image on Instagram. Coca-Cola engaged celebrity and Instagram star Selena Gomez for their “Share a Coke and a Song” image.


Obviously this is a very different message from Pepsi’s advert, however Coca-Cola’s reason for success is where Pepsi missed a trick. So what did Coca-Cola do differently? Though Selena Gomez definitely counts as a top Influencer, she is also already famous as a singer. The advert therefore played to her strengths as an Influencer, and her audience reacted well to this. Coca-Cola picked a campaign that fit their Influencer and her online image, not the other way around.


The recent Influencer Marketing campaigns of Danish beer brand Ceres, which involved humour and newsjacking, was similarly a success due to engaging the right Influencers. A delicate campaign to achieve, needing real events in real-time, their content had to be shared in the right way by the right people, and in doing so they achieved great success with their 20 campaigns having an overall reach of 17 million users.

At Buzzoole our proprietary A.I. technology means we can match brands and brand campaigns with the right Influencers, to ensure a real affinity between both – and consequently an authentic and effective word of mouth campaign. Our aim has always been to promote great word of mouth for great brands, and avoid out-of-touch messages. The importance of a tailored Influencer selection for your brand should never be underestimated. Listening and engaging is the way forward with marketing, not just another hollow celebrity endorsement.

This post is also available in: Italian

gianluca perrelli

Featured in 2021 as one of Forbes Magazine's Top 100 Italian Managers, Gianluca Perrelli is an entrepreneur with more than 20 years of experience, spent launching and developing well-known projects like Kiver - the first influencer network in Italy - later sold to Mondadori. Gianluca is also the author of the book "Homo Influencer". Today, Gianluca Perrelli is the CEO of Buzzoole, a member of the Board of Directors at Luisa Via Roma , a mentor for the I3P incubator in Turin, and a teacher at Luiss Business School for the "Influencer and Celebrities" master course.

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