Claire Beale On Advertising: How Pepsico rescued itself from a tech disaster

It’s not often that you hear one of the world’s biggest brands saying sorry, but Pepsico was forced to apologise last week for an illjudged social media campaign that has kicked up one of the biggest advertising storms of the year and highlighted the perils of social media engagement.

Pepsico’s problems all began with an iPhone application that was launched in the US this month. The app, for Pepsico’s Amp energy drink, is so damn blokey that it ignores – insults, even – half of Pepsico’s customers: women. For a mainstream marketer targeting a cross-gender audience, it’s a pretty basic error.

The offending app, called “Amp up before you score”, is designed as an aid to help blokes pull girls. It’s a sort ofmating-game toolkit. It conveniently categorises women into 24 types (from Aspiring Actress to Treehugger), with handy chat-up notes for each type. The guys can then catalogue their conquests, add them to their Brag List and flaunt their triumphs (names, dates, any other interesting details) on social networking sites such as Facebook.

Perhaps you can see why Pepsico (with one eye closed) might think its app was a good idea. Amp is targeting a youth audience, and young consumers are harder to reach than ever through traditional media channels. Social media is their manor. And mobile phone applications can be a branded utility that allows advertisers to be useful to their tech-hungry customers.

So how about an app that helps blokes woo girls? Must be a good idea, right, because it’s been done before (though better and more appropriately) by Axe/Lynx. Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s splendid “Get in There” application for the pubescent male deodorant brand won plenty of industry plaudits.

But unlike Axe, Amp isn’t a clearly targeted male brand. And inviting guys to boast about their conquests across social media channels has inflamed those who see the whole concept as insulting to women. Cue a backlash that ran riot across industry and consumer blogs.

Pepsico’s response was perhaps the most interesting thing about the whole farrago, though. It said sorry on Twitter: “Our app tried 2 show the humorous lengths guys go 2 pick up women.

Weapologise if it’s in bad taste & appreciate your feedback.” And then it linked the apology to a hashtag called “pepsifail”.

Now, apologising is one thing. Openly admitting to failure is another. And by perpetuating the pepsifail feed, Pepsico spread the controversy well beyond Amp, drawing its other brands into the row.

But the hands-up strategy might just have saved Pepsico’s reputation.

With any social media campaign consumers expect to be part of the conversation, expect their opinions to be welcomed, and expect to be listened to. In the end, Pepsico managed to deliver on that.

The Amp saga is a story of our times, evidence that this new media world we live in can prove difficult to navigate even for the most marketing literate of advertisers. Fame-hungry marketers and their agencies now have so many opportunities to do something new, different and exciting, that even the best of them are having to learn on the job.

Perhaps the Pepsico team got carried away on the crest of a new media trend (“The answer’s an app, now what’s the question?”). It happens.

There are thousands of unvisited, unloved websites that bear testament to the folly of marketing fashions.

But, having found its social media strategy backfiring, Pepsico’s quick reaction proved that the company was engaging with the principles of social media interaction.

So Pepsico could find itself coming out of the Amp app saga with an improved reputation and with a new dialogue with its consumers. Which is, after all, the whole point of social media if you’re an advertiser.

Best in Show: McDonald’s (Leo Burnett)

McDonald’s churns out TV ads as though they were just another ingredient on the fast food menu: dozens of commercials every year, of uniform high quality and reliability.

It’s a fantastic achievement by the company’s ad agency, Leo Burnett. But the latest campaign, called “favourites”, is even better than usual, and takes the form of a poem, an ode to the different types of McDonald’s customers. The writing’s lovely and the direction is crisp but with a real warmth for the subject matter. And in a world of price promotions, it’s great to see a strong branding campaign that just sets out to celebrate the product