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Why Pepsi and Kendall Jenner are an example of innovative idiocy

The recent fallout over Pepsi's ad featuring Kendall Jenner is a classic example of a misguided, half-hearted user-centred design process, says Creativate's Jeremy Suisted.

After Kim Kardashian tried to break the internet in 2015, it appears her younger sister Kendall Jenner has inadvertently followed in her footsteps.

In case you’ve been living under a blue-and-red plastic dome for the past few days, Kendall starred in a Pepsi advertisement, which features her leaving a modelling shoot to facilitate peace between young protestors and the oppressive police.

How? By stepping forward and offering one of the policemen an ice-cold Pepsi.

Critics have been fast to deride this, with Bernice King – daughter of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr – tweeting: “If only daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi.”

Pepsi have responded by pulling the ad, and stating: “Pepsi was trying to project a global a message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.”

This is a fantastic example of a misguided, half-hearted user-centred design process.

Pepsi – and the creatives involved in this project – were clearly trying to align their brand with the cultural zeitgeist. At a time of protest and unrest, they were attempting to promote the message of Pepsi as a binding, unifying solution.

And – as crazy as that may sound – Coke did something similar in the 1970s, but was deemed a rounding success. In 1971, Coke produced their “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke” campaign, created by McCann Erickson.

The creative director on this account, Bill Backer, said, “So that was the basic idea: to see Coke not as it was originally designed to be -- a liquid refresher -- but as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes.”

Coke managed to capture the sentiment of the time. Pepsi managed to debase it.

Coke kept their focus on a problem vague and loose, and offered Coke as a communal gathering drink.

Pepsi highlighted a painful, real, specific problem – the recent protests in America, driven by race and politics – and offered their fizzy soda as an actual solution.

When you identify a specific problem – be it a social ill, or a customer need – you need to offer a specific, good-fit solution. Anything else will be seen as a frustration – or a mockery.

This is about designing products, services and ads that are a best-fit for the end user. And although these may seem like a fantastic idea in the minds of an executive – often they are far removed from the world of their customers.

An easy example of this is Bic. Well known for making disposable products such as their pens and razors, Bic decided in 1998 to branch out into making disposable underwear. This seemed like a great idea to the executive team, and they launched a division, pushing this to market in Greece, Ireland and Austria.

Unsurprisingly, this was a total flop, and was quietly shelved in 2005.

What could Bic have done? Identified the real need that they can meet with their disposable solutions, test their ideas cheaply and quickly – and develop solutions that leave their customers pleased.

Pepsi could have employed a design methodology to quickly test this idea with target audiences – such as people who had been involved in protests! – learnt, and adapted.

Although this is an example that the world is currently mocking – it is the most common problem I see in organisations. Executives and engineers get wed to their ideas – and fail to see the changes required to make it fit the world of the customer.

So, as you watch the ad one last time – or enjoy The Late Night with Seth Meyers spoof of it – consider: “Are we following in Pepsi’s footsteps? Or do we know the world of our customer, and involve them in the design of our offerings?”

Jeremy Suisted is the director of Creativate, a New Zealand-based innovation + design agency. He's now offering clients the services of the Innovation360 Assessment, which analyses and benchmarks an organisation’s innovation in 16 different categories. More information is available by emailing jeremy@creativate.co.nz.