Did you see the short-lived "White Is Purity" ad from Nivea, a brand owned by German firm Beiersdorf? It had people seeing red before it was pulled. Or the panned Pepsi ad? It garnered 18,000 dislikes to a puny 3,000 likes on YouTube before it was pulled. Adweek called it "one of the most reviled ads" in recent memory.

Marketing fail--or leadership crisis?

Stepping back from the audience misjudgments in these ads--covered by wittier commentators than I--let's take a look at how you can protect your company from tone deaf embarrassments like these. After all, we know the teams at Pepsi and at Nivea just hoped to sell more cold cream and sugar water--not controversy.

Marketing is (more and more) complicated.

As teams refine targeting more and more through marketing technology, marketing as a discipline is getting more complex. Thousands of inputs, like sentiment analysis and predictive analytics through artificial intelligence, can create enough noise to confuse even seasoned creative directors. Power brands like Pepsi or Nivea can afford world class data on ad direction, decent budgets compared to smaller companies, and top talent. If companies with this much opportunity can generate this much mess, what gives?

Process isn't the problem anymore

"When this sort of thing happens, most companies will say they'll do a better job at creative review and testing," says Michael Cruz, chief content officer at Hiccup, a part of Unified Agency. His group works for brands like Advil, Dick's Sporting Goods, Febreze, and Pringles.

"Process is often not the problem. The real fail doesn't even begin at the brainstorming. It's above that. It's the leadership gap." There is simply not enough diverse leadership involved to develop authentic content. "What happens then is you get platitudes instead of perspective--and the market calls you out on it," he says.

From platitudes to points of view

Maribett Varner is also at Unified Agency and president at BKV. "It takes time to develop a company voice that's in concert with your customers. At the very least, being led by insights drawn from data, and then developing creative briefs through leadership that lives like your customers and looks like your customers, are two must-haves."

She points out that Pepsi's CEO Indra Nooyi is one of the top women leaders today. Nooyi is on the record for her commitment to making Pepsi a more diverse working environment. She calls it "a business imperative." Currently, 77% of Pepsi execs are men (and that's one of the best corporate figures out there). Of course, Nooyi says 50% is the natural mark.

Perspective on tap

Sometimes you get the diversity of perspective you need by bolting it on from the outside, says Mark Ray, owner at agency North, in Portland, OR. Their customers include companies like Clif Bar and Columbia sportswear. He noticed that Pepsi's ad was well executed, but since it was produced entirely inhouse, it was also a product of the corporate echo chamber. "Someone at Pepsi forgot this. Someone let the holy grail of in-house efficiency blind them to what's actually happening just outside their walls." There are numerous companies, like these, developing new ways to access different points of view and overcome blind spots your leadership may be prone to.

Advertising force of nature Cindy Gallop, famous for many roles include chairman of the New York office and CMO of BBH globally, advocates letting go of establishment thinking by 'hiring people who have never been the establishment.'

"Our industry thinks its glory days are over," she says. "Our industry's glory days have not even begun. Because we have not even begun to see what this industry could be with the creativity and the talent and skills of women and people of color."

She recently spoke at the 3% Conference. Why is it named 3%? Because only 3% of the creative directors in the world at the time it was founded were women. Now it's 11%. Still a long way to go.

Diversity isn't a nice to have.

You can be a big part of that journey to make your company, your work, and your culture more bulletproof through building leadership that literally reflects reality. Hire well. Contract out well. Put outsize value on perspectives from backgrounds that aren't yours, culturally or demographically. It's become a basic business competitive advantage as well as demographic reality. The United States as a whole will crossover-50% minority mark in the next 20 years. For kids under 8, our future consumers armed with digital purchase trigger buttons already, they are already living in a minority-majority population. Especially if you're selling to a broad customer base, you can't afford to be without a well grounded, diverse point of view and expect success, as Nivea and Pepsi just painfully discovered.

Published on: Apr 10, 2017