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How Your Brand Can Avoid a Pepsi-Kendall Jenner-Level Disaster

April 6, 2017, 5:23 PM UTC

This week, Kendall Jenner appeared in a Pepsi ad where she moonlighted as a protestor, eventually solving America’s police brutality problem by handing a particularly attractive police officer a soft drink. The ad was a social media fiasco for Pepsi, which quickly pulled it off the air. But while Kendall Jenner’s foray into business was a mess, her half-sister Kim Kardashian seems to have golden touch for branding. Fortune spoke with Jeetendr Sehdev, a celebrity branding authority and author of the new book The Kim Kardashian Principle: Why Shameless Sells (and How to Do It Right), about what the Kardashian clan can teach business about reaching millennial consumers (without having them laugh your ad off the air). An edited and condensed transcript of the conversation follows.

Fortune: How did the Pepsi ad go so terribly wrong?

Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press
Courtesy of Jeetendr Sehdev

Sehdev: We’ve actually seen this before. We saw it with Starbucks‘s attempt to leverage what was happening with race relations in their “Race Together” campaign. They tried to channel what was happening in the market place, but there’s really no connection between Starbucks and that conversation. People raised the question, “Why Starbucks?”

It was the same thing with Pepsi. They tried to tap into a plethora of different topical issues and ideas, but people were left confused: “What part of Pepsi’s DNA connects with those issues?” The danger in trying to jump on the bandwagon of different themes is you’re going to start getting called out for being inauthentic. Or you’re going to start being laughed at.

In a lot of ways, it was a pretty funny ad.

It was confusing—it was this funny mishmash of just nonsense.

Honestly, after watching it, I felt a little sympathy for Pepsi, which has gotten pushback from consumers for its CEO’s post-election comments and from investors for its emphasis on healthy food. And if a bunch of Pepsi marketers think that pro-diversity marches are what the kids are all about these days, maybe that’s a good sign.

The problem is you can’t just throw a celebrity into an ad and hope that it moves product. You have to resonate on deeper, more meaningful levels. The distrust amongst audiences is incredibly high, so people can suss out any trace of artifice. Yes, Pepsi does seem to be an open-minded brand, but you need a lot more than just being open minded and flexible.

You need to really show a level of credibility; a level of true courage in your beliefs. Like Chick-fil-A has done with their very strong Christian stance, like Urban Outfitters has done. Or like SoulCycle has done.

Those companies truly believe in their perspective; it’s what they live and die for. Brands need to show a courage of conviction. It’s time for Pepsi to take bigger risks instead of trying to associate themselves with these safe names and big names.

We need to know: “What is Pepsi’s perspective on the world?” I don’t know what they really believe in. I don’t know what they are willing to put themselves on the line for.

That sounds like a risky strategy for a megabrand that doesn’t want to alienate fans.

Today isn’t about developing fans—it’s about developing fanatics. You have to be willing to say, “I’m not for everyone.” You might very well be polarizing, but you’re not going to get the fanatics if you keep playing it safe.

It’s the same with Kim Kardashian. She’s become one of the biggest celebrities in the world. She says, “I want to post nude selfies, that’s for me.” You can degrade her, you can vilify her, but she has this devil-may-care attitude. There is going to be a group of people who think she’s talentless, and there is going to be a group of people who think she’s the best thing ever, and that, in fact, she’s the new definition of talent.

Do you think she’s the new definition of talent?

Yes. There are people who think talent is only reserved for the select few who go to Juilliard or the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. I think that’s mistaken. Talent is being redefined by millennials and Generation Z. Today, talent is about developing your own following, marching to your own drumbeat, and about having the courage of your convictions.

You see brands asking again and again, “How do we crack the millennial consumer?” And the reason they’re asking that is because old school tactics no longer work. Before, we could go into the marketplace, do a focus group, ask what people wanted to hear, then feed it back to them, and it would be somewhat effective. That’s not working anymore.

What are the key takeaways from Kim Kardashian for business today?

There are six different rules, I use the acronym SELFIE in the book.

The first rule is around surprise. Kardashian is a true game changer; she has redefined traditional perceptions of what people consider to be successful and sexy, and in many ways she’s a new school feminist.

The second rule is about exposure. If they want to connect today, brands have to be overexposed. They can’t only be transparent to a certain degree; they have to show everything. Have an extreme level of honestly.

The third rule is about leading. You have to seek to remake culture in your own image. Put yourself and your ideas on the line, and let audiences decide whether or not they like your idea. Part of it is to love your haters. If your idea is not being hated, you don’t have a strong enough opinion.

The fourth rule is about flaws. Your flaws are what make you fascinating, so embrace yours. Show us your vulnerability; that will only enhance your credibility.

The fifth rule is about intimacy. Allow users to create an intimate relationship with your brand—on their terms. Uber Pool was created as low-cost ride-sharing product, but it now also functions as a pseudo dating service for some people. Using your product in a different way is something you have to allow people to do.

And the last rule is around execution. Companies should put a premium on getting their ideas out into the marketplace, seeing how they work, and refining accordingly.

What are the brands that have pulled this off?

There are quite a few brands, Marriott brought in people from Hollywood and started a content studio, and they’ve been tremendously successful. Virgin Atlantic. Uber Pool. Thinx, the period-proof panties, has done it very well.

Is there a limit to how well this works? You mentioned Thinx, their CEO was always unconventional, but was recently the subject of a very colorful sexual harassment suit. There are others, too, like Tomi Lahren, or Milo Yiannopoulos. People who are really out there, and then they go too far and come crashing down.

I don’t think that Milo is a good example of this. He may actually be the reverse example—of somebody who is inauthentic, and that’s why he crashed and burned. Audiences are just too savvy today. They catch on when people are just saying things for the sake of being disruptive; to be counterintuitive. Audiences say, “You know what? I don’t even think he believes that himself.”

On the other hand, Thinx’s early ad campaigns were successful because they were incredibly brave. They broke through in a market that is established but failed to hit a nerve with women. They were incredibly honest about the menstrual conversation, they didn’t hide it, and that’s what’s relevant for the company now regardless.

Going forward, what do you think is going to happen—are big Fortune 500 companies going to get the message about how to reach younger consumers? Or are they going to lose share to smaller, more authentic upstarts that are better at connecting?

I think that we are going to have to see a shift amongst larger brands. We’re already seeing big brands purchasing smaller, more innovative companies and allowing them to be their own brands and operate in their own way.

So they’re buying cool?

Right. They buy cool and they also let cool keep doing cool. This is an opportunity for smaller brands to keep breaking through. Overall, it’s going to level the playing field. People are going to say, “I know Pepsi is the biggest brand, but when it comes to me purchasing a drink, that doesn’t matter.” We have a whole line of different labels on the shelves that are equal in trust.

But larger organizations are going to adapt, too. They’re going to get the message. They have no choice.

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