What Pepsi and United Got Wrong

By May 9, 2017 ADvice, Blog No Comments

Big Brands, Public Relations and Understanding Your Audience

If you haven’t seen Pepsi’s ad starring Kendall Jenner you’re one of the lucky few. Released on April 4th, this 2-minute long video caused a backlash so loud that within 24hours Pepsi halted the rollout, released an apology and immediately dropped the ad like a hot cup of tone-deaf coffee. In just a couple of days, the ad had it’s own Saturday Night Live scene, alternate ending courtesy of Seth Meyers and more twitter rips that you can count.

The internet moves faster than a wildfire, folks.

Pepsi was desperate to connect with Millennials. I can almost hear the concept meeting now…

Kardashian/Jenner Klan? Check. Upbeat music? Check. Attractive, young and diverse crowd? Check. A political scene that’s not too political? Check.

The problem here? Millennials are skeptical of almost every ad you throw at them and this ad reeked of “trying too hard.”

While Pepsi desperately tried to connect with their audience, we saw a brand drag their audience through the proverbial mud just a week later.

On April 9th, Dr. Dao was yanked from his seat on a United Airlines flight and dragged down the aisle of the airplane as blood dripped from the corners of his mouth. Within minutes grainy cell phone videos were uploaded to social media, interviews were being given by eyewitnesses and this story became international news. United Airline’s response? A water down public apology, immediately followed by a private email to employees where the United’s CEO placed the blame squarely on the passenger.

Cultural Context and Temperature


While these two moments may seem light years away, they’re deeply connected. Both Pepsi and United missed the mark because they misunderstood the culture around their brands.

Pepsi trivialized decades of civil rights marches and complex racial/political divides by suggesting that it could all be solved with just an 8oz can of soda. While United seemed oblivious to the frustration most travels have with commercial airlines. Today’s airline travelers feel beat up by price gouging, poor customer service and unpredictable flights just for starters. When people saw Dr. Dao being dragged off that United flight, every single person who has ever felt taken advantage of or stepped on by a brand, saw themselves.

The brands that will maintain and grow market shares must pay attention to the culture around their products or service. Companies no longer live in vacuums and they do not have the luxury of burning through their audiences. The coming months will tell if United Airlines can regroup and position themselves as truly customer focused and if Pepsi can create new content that actually sticks.