Given how quickly the ad was pulled, there’s a chance you might have missed one of the most shocking marketing faux pas of recent years. But the woefully misguided Pepsi advert featuring reality star/model Kendall Jenner still leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Across the Internet, commentators were (for once) in total agreement: this no doubt hugely expensive campaign was about as cool as fiery fresh jalapeño with extra chilli sauce. Pepsi even made a public apology after a social media backlash that seemed to unite public opinion in approbation.

Vanity, socio-political myopia, a disregard for cultural history – we’ll get on to the nitty-gritty of what made this ad so crushingly bad in a moment. But what, you may ask, has this got to do with localisation? The answer is that it got us thinking about the idea of authenticity and cultural appropriateness. About what makes some messages work beautifully while others seem about as genuine as a Warren Beatty endorsement on Oscar night. And how the soft drinks giant, armed with a creative budget to die for and a bankable celebrity lead, could get it so wrong. Let us explain.

If you take a look at the two-and-a-half-minute film, it doesn’t take long to spot a car-crash campaign in the making. Jenner starts out on a photoshoot before taking an interest in a passing protest march, which features a multicultural cast of beautiful young people taking to the streets for a suitably vague cause. The odd CND symbol is held aloft and the lukewarm call-to-arms seems to be: “Join the conversation”. “What conversation?”, we may reasonably ask. The global choice between diet vs. regular soda has, quite frankly, never seemed so pressing.

Meanwhile, Jenner and other loitering creative types realise the futility of their artistic struggles in comparison to “changing the world”TM. They join the shiny-happy-people in peaceful protest and, as the tension reaches incandescent tepidity, Jenner presents an ice-cold Pepsi to an obligingly cute cop. The Pepsi tagline? Live bolder. The message taken on board by almost everyone else? That, in an era in which racial inequality is still fiercely contested on streets across the US and beyond (see #BlackLivesMatter) and the potential consequences of nuclear proliferation are more terrifyingly real than at any time in recent history, the soft drink giant somehow imagines that an anodyne MTV-style commercial on the theme of protest-lite is an appropriate way to generate sales.

Perhaps the wittiest – and tersest – response came from Bernice King, the daughter of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, on Twitter:

king tweet

Touché. Nevertheless, perhaps the ad did actually serve some purpose. Because, as we mentioned, it reminded us about some of the core values we hold about localisation and what makes it really work. Such as, there is never any substitute for deeply understanding your local audience. Creating empathy and building trust is as essential as accuracy and technical nous. And that the same core message can, with skill and experience, be played on many different wavelengths.
This, of course, stands in direct contrast to what we’d like to refer to as “ersatz localisation” (or, in Pepsi’s case, “ersatz lifestyle marketing”), derived from the German for something that is inauthentic, a stand-in, a fake or a sub-standard imitation – a term first popularised in World War I when “ersatz” (or substitute) versions of products such as coffee replaced hard-to-find originals. In this case, the makers of the ad seem to think that a staged version of a celebrity in an “ersatz” protest somehow confers a sense of cultural authenticity and shared values. It is, of course, laughably bad, but the damage to reputation (and, no doubt, to careers) will not have been so amusing.
So, as a final thought, we’d like to throw it back to you. Are there any heavy-handed examples of “ersatz localisation” (or “ersatz marketing”) that you think should never have made it out of the meeting room, let alone into the global marketplace? And, conversely, which campaigns do you think show how good localisation links the message to the market in highly creative ways to build untapped brand value.
We’d love to hear from you, so don’t be shy. Reply to us here or email us at marketing@thisisalpha.com. It’s a serious subject but you can have some fun. Think of it as some light refreshment (and, as ever, choose your brand wisely).