What were they thinking? This is a question that could be asked not only of the Pepsi marketers whose crass commercial presentation of cans of fizzy drink as a panacea for world peace provoked mockery and outrage in equal measure, but also the heavy-handed staff at United Airlines. The latter, of course, belied its "Fly the friendly skies" ad slogan by having a passenger violently removed from an overbooked flight so a staff member could take his seat. The resulting social-media backlash led to $1bn temporarily being wiped off the airline’s market value.
"You have to keep your knowledge fresh. A closed circle of decision-making is a risk"
On the face of it, these two events are connected only by the damage done to a pair of famous brands. Yet there’s more that links them than first appears.
Social media has changed the global marketing game fundamentally and is now a key determinant of success or failure. It’s a far cry from 1971 when McCann Erickson filmed a group of young people from across the world singing on a hilltop about wanting to buy the world a Coke.
This revolution has profound implications for every global advertiser. "Global campaigning is no longer just about what you say, it’s about what you do," one marketing consultant explains.
According to Olivier Altmann, the former Publicis Worldwide chief creative officer and co-founder of agency Altmann+Pacreau: "A global ECD must always be thinking about what the web’s reaction to an ad might be. You must never let a clever execution win over misgivings about going in the wrong direction."
John Hunt, worldwide creative director at TBWA\Worldwide, points out that global advertisers no longer have the luxury of an early warning of a potential car crash as they did 20 years ago – when a Cannes jury might have highlighted an ad’s fundamental flaws.
The danger is you listen to ‘yes men’ and end up with a disaster like Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner spot
"Now everything goes global in a nanosecond," he warns. "Even if you pull a commercial immediately, the damage has been done."
Many onlookers believe that the problem for advertisers running campaigns across the world is how to reconcile their global status with culturally diverse consumers no longer willing to accept that one size fits all. "It’s hard enough running a pan-European campaign, let alone a global one," one marketing chief sighs.
Also, as global communication has changed, multinational companies are being forced to relinquish control, moving away from their TV comfort zone and into less familiar territory.
Julian Boulding is president of independent agency network thenetworkone, which advises agencies and leading companies. He has directed major global campaigns during an agency career that included 14 years at DMB&B.
"Not only is there a lot of bland global work, but kids don’t watch network TV any more," he says. "Their world is social media, where things move so fast that if you are a big bureaucracy of a company, you can be very vulnerable. The danger is you listen to ‘yes men’ and end up with a disaster like Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner spot."
Boulding suggests that the time has come when actions will speak louder than words in global marketing. How much better would it have been for Pepsi, he asks, if, instead of a patronising ad about activism, it was seen to be helping a deprived community.
"Do good things and people will talk about your brand," he advises. "What’s more, a successful social programme in one country can easily be taken to another."
Does this mean the writing is on the wall for global campaigns as we know them? Not necessarily. There’s a widespread belief that Coke’s "Hilltop" commercial (or a less cheesy version of it) could be just as effective were it aired today.
"There are still some very good global campaigns around," insists Roisin Donnelly, former brand director for Northern Europe at Procter & Gamble. She cites P&G’s "#LikeAGirl" work for its Always feminine-hygiene brand as an outstanding example, while pointing out that a global ad presence works well for Gillette shaving products. Moreover, global campaigns will remain crucial for advertisers such as car brands and fine fragrance houses, she adds.
"I don’t think the standards of global campaigns have necessarily slipped… there’s still a place for them," Matt McDowell, Toshiba’s European marketing director, argues. "It’s just that the growth of social media means you have to get it right."
The then Cadbury marketing director, Phil Rumbol bought the famous "Gorilla" campaign that scooped the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2008.
"Strong global campaigns are rare because they [are] a challenge," he says. "P&G, Heineken and Unilever have done them well because they have a clear creative strategy. But the margin between success and failure is narrow and social media can be heavily critical [if] a brand doesn’t get it right."
Indeed, P&G, the world’s biggest advertiser, has shown just how effective global marketing can be with its Olympics-themed "Thank you, mom" campaign. This has run regularly since the 2010 Winter Games and shows mothers supporting their children in training.
"This is a perfect example of a global campaign that everybody loves," Altmann declares. "Why? Because it relies on real insight – not on clichés, as Pepsi’s ad does – for its effectiveness."
Hunt says: "The purpose of a global campaign is still to sell stuff and if you get that campaign right, the world will beat a path to your door. But it’s getting trickier to tap into the global zeitgeist. Most global advertisers understand the complexities of global campaigns. The problem is the execution, which often tries so hard not to offend anybody. That explains why so much global work is mediocre."
Whether or not much of what has happened to global advertising is down to marketing dir-ectors being out of touch with the real world, and could benefit from a strong injection of diversity, is an open question.
Make the connection
There’s certainly little sign of that changing imminently, although it’s agreed that not only marketing chiefs but also the senior executives of their agencies should be more open to fresh thinking – and "get out more".
"It’s more about attitude than ethnicity," Boulding contends. "How can agency people and their clients, who fly first class and have company limos to take them to the airport, possibly know what’s really happening?"
McDowell argues that agency executives and their clients can be equally culpable of such levels of disconnection. "You have to keep your knowledge fresh," he says. "A closed circle of decision-making is a risk for any business."
Jan Gooding, insurer Aviva’s first global inclusion director, who took up her role in January, believes while a lack of diversity is having an impact on agency creative directors, the problem isn’t confined to them.
"Too many aren’t open to ideas that reflect different cultures," she says. "But I suspect the same is true of the marketing sector as a whole, which is lagging behind and needs to get its act together."
Hunt argues that marketing directors can no longer work in a bubble, even if they wished to, because questioning consumers will not allow them to do so.
Inevitably, the Pepsi debacle has prompted loud cries of "Told you so" from adland when it emerged that the much-derided ad was produced by the in-house studio into which PepsiCo has opted to switch a significant proportion of its content creation. "BBDO [Pepsi’s lead creative agency] must be laughing itself silly over this," an industry source says.
Such in-house operations are becoming commonplace among US companies, raising the spectre of compelling global campaigns being sacrificed in the name of cost-cutting or because there are in-house teams ready to do as they’re told without question. "I’d never have creative work produced in-house," Donnelly insists. "It’s agencies that bring you talent and ideas."
Some suggest the in-house trend could lead to even more stereotypical global work with even less subtlety and respect for local cultures.
"The standards of global advertising have always been questionable," one marketing director says. "Something as subtle as showing a child in a school uniform in a country where children don’t wear them is a sure-fire giveaway that an ad isn’t local, but it’s amazing how often things like this are ignored."
Simon Martin, the chief executive of Oliver Group, which sets up bespoke in-house agencies, is adamant that his agency’s creatives will challenge briefs if necessary. But he admits: "There’s always a danger that an in-house agency becomes completely subservient to what’s happening in a client’s world."
David Patton, Y&R’s global president, believes global campaigns are not becoming harder to produce as long as advertisers remember the lesson he learned as a senior marketer at Sony, where he bought the memorable "Balls" and "Paint" commercials from Fallon.
"My time at Sony taught me to think global and act local, and that still holds true," he says.
"While I struggle to think of a campaign that’s been successful across the world, there’s no reason why companies can’t work from a global template that allows for local cultures and characteristics to be respected. That’s especially true today, when a campaign intended for one market can – because of social media – easily cause offence in another where it was never intended to be seen."