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The old proverb “The bigger they are, the harder they fall” is very appropriate when I think of some recent epic fails by some big brands, namely Pepsi and United Airlines. If you know anything about brand communications, you probably shook your head in disbelief as I did at their recent snafus.

Kendall Jenner, the Kardashian sister and model extraordinaire whose face can be found on many a magazine cover and promoting certain brands, was somehow chosen to be featured in a recent Pepsi ad about a protest march presumably about Black Lives Matter. In the commercial, she’s in the middle of a modeling photo shoot as the participants march past her, and decides to join in. A line of police can be seen trying to keep the peace.

While that seems tame, the controversy focuses on the fact that Jenner emerges from the protest front and walks over to the police line and offers a police officer a Pepsi. He drinks it and the crowd cheers with hands in the air as if that one gesture melted away the issues behind the resistance.

Critics say that putting a white woman at the center of a Black Lives Matter issue is where Pepsi went wrong.  Not to mention that they were using a social justice issue to sell soda.

As a person on Twitter quipped “Kendall Jenner 'ends racism' by handing police men a Pepsi - way to degrade 50 yrs of black/minority struggle.”

Then there’s United Airlines. Who didn’t cringe at seeing the smart phone footage on the news and social media of the doctor being dragged off a flight before takeoff against his will. United had overbooked the flight and after no one volunteered to be bumped, they had to randomly pick 4 passengers. The doctor was chosen but claimed he had patients to see the next day and vehemently didn’t want to be bumped. A physical confrontation ensued, and a screaming doctor was dragged down the aisle.

United has suffered major backlash for this public relations nightmare because of such poor handling of the situation. More recently United and the gentleman reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount. And on the bright side, the airlines industry as a whole as taken a step back to examine passengers’ rights, something I view as much overdue. 

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Your brand might not experience the magnitude of exposure and backlash that a big brand like Pepsi or United Airlines experienced when they made their major guffaws, but we can all learn from their mistakes, namely:

  1. If you’re brand is going to take a stand on something, make sure you align yourself with an appropriate celebrity or executive to accurately represent that stand. Kendall Jenner just was a poor choice. Period.
  2. Test, test, test. Where was the impartiality with the Pepsi ad? They seemed to create it in a vacuum. Make sure all perspectives are well represented and test it out with different audiences or focus groups first. Had Pepsi done that, they would have saved themselves a lot of trouble.
  3. Smart phones are ubiquitous and a simple video can impact your brand in a millisecond. No matter how small your brand is, it just takes one rogue iPhone video posted up on social media to ruin your target’s perception of your brand.
  4. Don’t hesitate or appear as wishy-washy when the media is looking for answers. United didn’t seem to have a good united (no pun intended) front when first confronted by the media. They couldn’t adequately answer all the questions or satisfy the media’s inquiries. Have a PR crisis plan in place and stick to it! Come out proactively and make sure your answers really address the situation.

If you think your brand is immune to such attacks, or that you would never experience anything like what happened to Pepsi or United Airlines, simply put, you are wrong. Brands large and small are not safe and having a well-crafted plan in place is worth its weight in gold.


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