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Kendall Jenner and Pepsi: When influencer marketing backfires

Content marketers are always looking for fresh, new ways to make their brands stand out online, and in recent years we’ve seen a wave of innovative new strategies designed to do just that. From precisely targeted social media content through to high-quality blog posts with expert insights, there are all sorts of new methods available for businesses looking to gain a leg up on the competition.

Promoting content marketing online

Even the best content isn’t much use if nobody is accessing it, which is why promotion, or ‘amplification’, is so vital. By pushing your content out to a wider audience, it’s possible to reach more customers, build better brand recognition and take steps towards dominating your industry online. One of the most popular strategies for this is known as influencer marketing, and it’s exactly what it sounds like.

By aligning your website and blog content with a popular or respected figure, you not only gain more credibility but also have the opportunity to tap into and piggyback off their built-in audience. However, as with all things content marketing, working with influencers is a delicate art, and nothing underlines this more than the recent Pepsi advertising debacle, which has dominated marketing headlines for the last few months.

Let’s take a closer look at where everything went wrong.

Influencer marketing mistakes: Pepsi and Kendall Jenner

It’s easy to see what Pepsi was going for with its recent advertising campaign. Take a topical subject, a (very) popular online influencer and mix them together with a sprinkling of high production value and a dash of uplifting music. The result? Millennial bait!

Unfortunately, the campaign missed the mark, and by some distance, thanks to one simple mistake – the wrong topic. Just in case you haven’t seen the video (which has been pulled by Pepsi), the concept is a simple one. Jenner is in the middle of a glamorous photo shoot when a protest marches by. Seeing the procession, Jenner abandons her post and runs to join in. The whole thing culminates with a standoff between the protesters and police, and just as things are looking serious, our brave influencer crosses the picket line and hands a police officer the one thing guaranteed to solve the world’s problems – an ice-cold can of Pepsi.

It’s all an obvious nod to movements such as Black Lives Matter and The Women’s March, but by tackling such a complex topic, and providing Jenner and a $2.50 beverage as the solution, the ad comes off as exploitative and belittling. The concept was described by Edward Boches, professor of advertising at Boston University, as “ridiculous,” explaining to Adweek that it:

“Shows no awareness of the protesters’ mindset or [the] environment. Feels completely dishonest and contrived. Was clearly done by people who have not attended a protest or spent time on the streets and have no understanding of the pent-up anger.”

It’s a damning indictment, and while the whole ad has been ripped apart online, it’s the use of Jenner that a lot of people have taken particular issue with. To put things simply, as a famous, wealthy celebrity, she doesn’t fit the image of protesting against injustice. On a deeper level, using a white 21-year-old best known for a reality TV show to recreate striking images such as Ieshia Evans facing off against armed riot police in Louisiana is insulting and trivialising.

A Forbes article on the topic describes this “forced diversity” as a disconnect between Jenner’s ‘story’ and the narrative of the advertisement, explaining that “featuring a supermodel, of all people, in the spotlight tends to do nothing but highlight the very gap the advertisement is trying to bridge.”

How to use influencer marketing

While the Pepsi campaign did miss the mark, it isn’t fair to accuse the company or Jenner of anything other than trying to create an effective piece of online content. And while the ad has been pulled, it’s still worth looking at it for tips on how to better use influencer marketing – whether your company has a budget like Pepsi’s or not.

Tip #1: Consider the message

Most of the furor over the use of Jenner in Pepsi’s campaign could have been avoided by thinking more carefully about how her image aligns with the message of the content. This applies to every form of influencer marketing, whether you’re working with a celebrity or a leader in your industry. If they are well-known enough to be an influencer, then they’ll be bringing some sort of reputation to the table. Your job is to ensure that this matches up with your brand, and the message you are trying to deliver.

Tip #2: Consider the audience

Influencers come with a built-in following, and whether you like it or not this will result in segmentation of the audience you are able to reach. Identifying this audience and playing to it will not only make your influencer marketing more effective, but also ensure that you’re not trying to fit two opposing ideas into one piece of content.

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Influencer marketing success stories

The damage suffered by Pepsi in the aftermath of this campaign may put some people off influencer marketing, but it can still be hugely successful if done correctly. Let’s look at a few examples, including some from smaller brands that have still managed to leverage influencers within their industry.

#1: Estée Lauder and Kendall Jenner

Unlike the Pepsi commercial, the influencer does fit the message here, with Jenner perfectly suited to the brand, products and messaging of Estée Lauder’s online content.

@esteelauder #KJ4EL #EsteeModel

A post shared by Kendall (@kendalljenner) on

#2: Sperry and ‘micro-influencers

Sperry is one of many brands who have decided not to focus on big names and instead gone for a scattering of popular, but by no means famous, names. This ‘micro-influencer’ approach works for a few reasons, but mostly because it involves influencers who are legitimate fans of the product, and lots of them!

The name says it all. Link in bio to shop the Wahoo sneaker. 📷 by @slatertrout

A post shared by Sperry (@sperry) on

#3: SAP and software solutions experts

A common misconception is that influencer marketing only works with certain types of products, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. SAP, a leader in enterprise software solutions, uses influencers from inside the industry to draw attention to events. Their names may not mean much to you or me, but to the sector they may well be the Kendall Jenners of the world!

So to wrap things up: Influencer marketing can be hugely successful, but to avoid ‘pulling a Pepsi,’ take a few extra seconds to think closely about the message and audience of your chosen influencer, and how that fits with your overall brand and content marketing strategy.

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Ben Lange
Ben Lange About the author

A Castleford veteran now based out of England, Ben writes across a broad variety of industries, including construction, education, recruitment, banking and film and music. He’s a regular contributor to the Castleford blog and writes for clients such as Hilti Australia, TRC Group and Beyond Bank.

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