After Pepsi's announcement earlier this week that it would stop selling the full-leaded version of its soda pop in schools around the world, I was quoted in USAToday saying that I'm cynical about its purpose (the company doesn't really sell much in schools globally anyway) and doubtful of the connection to its sales strategy (so we should celebrate its retreat from selling sweet beverages by...buying more sweet beverages?).
The company got praise from a spokesman from a special interest group, however, and credit from an industry expert for "doing the right thing." This got me thinking about the matter some more and I think I finally understand what's going on.
The announcement was truly nonsense; Pepsi might as well have told us that it has sworn off sending evil thought waves at Coke drinkers, or that it had declared a bottling plant a nuclear-free zone. Giving up on a business that it doesn't possess says nothing about the brand. Deciding to shelve its regular mix entirely would have been a statement, only it won't do that unless consumers continue to walk away from it.
Do sugary drinks belong in schools? Of course they do; sugar and caffeine are a veritable food group for kids, and the stuff flows freely at fast food restaurants, gets served in gallon-sized cups at 7-Eleven, and literally falls off the shelves at grocery stores because it's priced so cheaply. Coke responded correctly to the Pepsi news by saying that it deferred to local school boards to decide whether soda pop, hamburgers, or classes convening before 9 am should be banned. Maybe they'll get to that after they limit the exploitation of students by sports apparel marketers.
Pepsi makes soda pop, not cigarettes or guns, so the schools decision doesn't make sense unless you look at who it’s intended to influence: that guy lauding Pepsi's gesture in the USAToday piece, and the special interests for which he speaks.
Welcome to the brave new world of Squeaky Wheel Marketing.
The Internet has enabled an entirely new level of organizing and advocacy, and does a good job of stripping single issues away from the reality of context in which they otherwise exist. Child obesity is one such "issue" and concerned individuals can "get involved" in it via a myriad of virtual ways: click, vote, comment, complain. Their involvement needs to be centered on wrongs that require righting so there must be targets (otherwise known as scapegoats) against which the virtual agitation can be directed. Soda pop in schools -- out of a zillion different contributors to kids getting fat, and nowhere near the top 100 -- somehow became a priority.
Are the folks involved in the child obesity issue now going to drink more Pepsi? Were they even consumers in the first place? Answering those questions doesn't really matter because our definition of brands requires that squeaky wheels get fixed...or their noise could scramble the messages we want to get out to everyone else. There's a brand image "out there" that needs to be protected, and the problem is that Internet search and various social media tools has made those threatening squeaks more common and a lot louder.
Only they're still squeaks. Most brands are committing time and money to track them, reply to them, and otherwise preoccupy marketing with them. I'm sure there were celebrations within the Pepsi communications department because of the press coverage of the announcement, confusing their response to a relatively narrow, single-issue constituency of maybe-sortof-who knows-consumers with doing something constructive.
Pepsi should make business decisions based on what will allow it to sell the most soda pop for the highest prices for as long as humanly possible. If signing off of schools supports that endeavor then I'm all for it; hell, the company should be willing to do anything just shy of breaking the law as far as I'm concerned.
But responding to voices that have been unduly elevated by the technology of the Internet is without integrity and expresses no principle other than that of convenience and dishonesty.
It's bad strategy. And it's squeaky wheel marketing.
Image source: Michel Filion