Pepsi shows how brand ‘advocates’ lack sparkle

One danger of marketing in the digital age is that the tail of the brand will end up wagging the dog – as Pepsi discovered to its cost

As marketing blunders go, it’s not quite up there with “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” translating into Chinese as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”. But the cola giant has been grovelling fulsomely for the crassness of its recent “Amp Up Before You Score” promotion. And rightly so: it threatened to alienate a fair part of its customer base.

Amp up? It’s an Apple iPhone app launched only two weeks ago by PepsiCo’s Amp Energy brand. It pandered fairly shamelessly to the “frat” proclivities of adolescent heterosexual males in search of an easy lay. Helpfully, it mapped womanhood into 24 easy-to-recognise categories – such as sorority girl, treehugger, foreign exchange student – and supplied relevant cultural cues for appropriate chat-up lines. Then, best of all, it encouraged successful users to boast of their conquests on Twitter and Facebook.

You get the picture. So unfortunately for Pepsi, did the Twitterati. An acid-bath of vitriol descended on Pepsi’s head. The following is my favourite comment: “So is there only one type of man? A Neanderthal who needs a cellphone app to talk to women?”

I don’t know about only one type of man: but there are certainly Neanderthals alive and well in PepsiCo’s marketing team. Who dreamed this promotion up and, more pertinently, who was witless enough to sanction it?

It typifies one of the unintended consequences behind “new thinking” in marketing, which topically enough is outlined in a report from marketing consultancy Forrester that rejoices in the snappy title of Adaptive Brand Marketing: Rethinking Your Approach to Branding in the Digital Age.

The report’s key finding is that the term brand manager is no longer appropriate because, in a world of constant digital dialogue with the consumer, it is not the marketer who “manages” the brand but the consumer. Instead, Forrester recommends “brand advocate”. This new role will be far nimbler, more powerful and consumer-centric than many current management structures allow. It implies, among other things, more responsibility devolved to the frontline, and the elimination of an annual budgeting process and “upfront” media buying.

In this freewheeling world of the future, brand advocates will have a much more promiscuous relationship with agencies and media owners.

Rather than focus their activity around a few big hits in a year, brand advocates should use “predictive modelling” and digital dialogue (mostly via social media) with consumers to create multiple tailored events on the fly. Inherent in this new role is a more numerate approach to marketing, not to mention a firm grasp of behavioural science. Speed is of the essence, if opportunity is to be grasped.

Recognise the pattern? You certainly should, because much of Forrester’s thinking has already been embraced by the likes of Procter & Gamble and Unilever. The traditionally pyramidical national brand management structure has been spun into a new axis of global brand directors, who keep tabs on a network of empowered local brand advocates (to use Forrester’s term).

No doubt there are clear advantages to this new model marketing – speed, fluidity and scope for greater initiative with consumers among them. For brand advocates in particular, it sounds an intoxicating opportunity to be more of a marketing purist: that is, bring in house creative, research and planning skills traditionally associated with agencies and shuffle off some of the more boring responsibilities normally aligned with brand management.

Precisely herein, of course, are also some of the drawbacks to the new model. “Advocate” is a weaker word than “manager”. It implies someone less in control than before, and at the constant beck and call of consumer whim (or, more likely, the latest consumer insight) in a world where consumers have taken over real responsibility for the brand.

They have not; though they do have a more powerful role in shaping and defining brands than before the internet came along.

‘Advocate’ is a weaker word than “manager”. It implies someone less in control than before, and at the constant beck and call of consumer whim (or, more likely, the latest consumer insight) in a world where consumers have taken over real responsibility for the brand.

Nor, crucial though it is to focus on the consumer, are insight and communication the sole preoccupations of marketing. What about profit? What about the other three Ps besides promotion: price, position and product? What about an interest in distribution and sales? A highly specialised advocate will very likely make a poorer recruit to the upper reaches of management in a marketing-led company than the traditional but better-rounded manager.

A further systemic threat is that the tail of the marketing organisation will end up wagging the dog, which is seemingly what happened with the Pepsi promotion. As the hard lines of traditional brand disciplines begin to blur, it is easy to see how digital marketing experts – obsessed with the virtues of social media, apps and specialised in certain audience pyscho-demographic profiles (young males, in the Amp case) – may come to forget that the internet and mobile phone connectivity are not an end in themselves, merely facilitators. What’s even more worrying is the seeming absence of disciplined control over their actions. So much for the global brand “director” and the bigger picture.

Now I know what you’re going to say. Amp is an energy drink, so it’s aimed fairly and squarely at young males (though why is another matter: women like taurine-enhanced drinks as well). And the app promotion has succeeded to the extent that a previously little-known brand name has achieved viral notoriety. But at what cost to Pepsi? Subsequent mishandling of a social media charm offensive has left the master brand looking hamfisted and out of touch.

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