Culture can turn anyone into a modern day Edward Smith, the ill-fated captain of the RMS Titanic. Smith went down with his ship when it hit an iceberg on April 14, 1912. If you’re a brand steward, you don’t want to end up like Smith.

But that’s potentially what’s happening with Pepsi as a result of its $50 million endorsement of Beyonce. What seems to have caught Pepsi (and to a similar extent, Coke) off guard is the public’s growing health consciousness and our evolving understanding and assumptions about health and wellness. The cultural frame around soft drinks has shifted.  In the process an industry icon and the star it has endorsed have both been set up for a blind side hit.

The cultural fight that’s coming to a head has been brewing for a while. A couple of points along the way:

  • In 1971, restauranteur and food activist Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse and showed that locally sourced, organic food could drive a restaurant into the global top 50 rankings and keep it there.
  • In 1978, John Mackey starts what will become Whole Foods.
  • Today, organic food sales growth is leaving the rest of the grocery industry in the dust. Just notice the change in your local supermarket, where the organic area have expanded.
  • Films such as Super Size Me and King Corn put a spotlight on both the health impacts of fast food and how government subsidies for corn influenced the ingredients in our foods.
  • Focus on personal fitness: Richard Simmons/aerobics in the 80s; Tae-Bo in the 90s; and current crazes such as Pilates, P90X, Crossfit and Zumba
  • Consider Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, whose 2009 lecture Sugar: The Bitter Truth has been viewed over 3 million times! No “Gangnam Style” numbers here, but keep in mind that the video is 90 minutes of heavy bio-chemistry.

Despite all of this focus on health and healthy eating, Americans are fatter than ever.  As one means of addressing this, First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move initiative with Beyonce as a very visible supporter. Michelle even learned the dance. Overall, this is not a good look for brand Beyonce either. I mean, can you imagine the phone call–if it ever happens–between her and Michelle? Awkward!  Not to mention the disappointment of the fans who expect Beyonce to be a role model.

This is the cultural climate into which the Pepsi/Beyonce deal was unveiled. Reaction has been swift.

Now comes Coke’s effort to take the high road by playing the “calories in, calories out” card.

While this may outflank Pepsi, it may not insulate Coke from the renewed attention from the health advocates such as the influential osteopathic physician Dr. Joseph Mercola, who believe that counting calories is a pretty useless tool in the fight for weight loss.

Where Does That Leave Brands?

Culture is context. It’s why this deal probably wouldn’t have caused such a stir 5 or 10 years ago. Understanding and assumptions evolve. Until we develop a process for discerning which way the wind is blowing on a particular issue, we’ll continue to see these blind side hits. Social media propagates ideas and it’s the exposure to a multitude of ideas that shift sentiment. Social media also enables people to organize by interests and lifestyles across geography, amassing supporters or detractors.

How should brands proceed when considering celebrity endorsements? Clearly, it’s no longer only about determining which celebrity or personality aligns with the brand’s position. The additional calculus needs to be around culture. Not just target consumers, but the context they and the brand inhabit. Understanding the larger cultural landscape and context still eludes most big brands. Too many still don’t get how the cultural frames around their businesses have shifted. An investigation of culture–i.e., broader attitudes and how they’ve changed–would have, I believe, alerted Pepsi to the potential downside risk.

So I’m not sure when this thing goes away. The Super Bowl’s in approximately three weeks and Beyonce and Pepsi will be there in full force. Like the iceberg that sank the Titanic, there’s the possibility that there’s more to this outrage than we can see.

Everyone might want to brace for impact.


Posted by Rob Fields

Observer. Curator. Marketer. Dot connector.

  • Renoir422

    Unfortunately, the dissonance from corporations and their celebrity endorsers will continue to ignore cultural shifts regarding healthy lifestyles. The Agribusinesses (Archer-Midlands-Daniels & etc.) , USDA are too vested/wedded to big pharma to acknowledge or promote healthier choices. After all, products must be sold, meds must be prescribed. Folks will continue to wash down their McDeath with a Big Gulp of sugar.

    • Thanks, Renee. Yeah, I think your comment is emblematic of the ways in which cultural attitudes have shifted, enough so that they pose a problem for all brands playing in this space. I’ll be tracking this to see how it develops.

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