I’m writing a business book on creating emotional connections with customers. Given all the research I’m doing, I have a heightened awareness of every brand I interact with or read about and there’s a theme that must change. I call it “Scripted Authenticity.”

If you followed the recent Pepsi drama, their epic fail, a/k/a the Kendall Jenner ad is a perfect example of what I am talking about. A bunch of suits in a conference room said – “Hey, we need to do something cool to try to create a connection with millennials so they’ll buy more soda.” Then they turned to their in-house creative team and told them to make it happen. A recent Adweek article called Pepsi “tone-deaf,” which is a perfect way to sum up the problem with this whole campaign and something other companies need to learn from.

If you are running a company and building a brand, you need to know this with 100% certainty: People – of all ages – can smell inauthenticity a mile away. I’ll go even further to say that Millennials and Gen Z can smell it 100 times more. If it’s not real, they’re not buying it. This reality is something brands of all shapes and sizes need to embrace, live and breath.

So what went wrong here and why?

Here’s my take on why Pepsi can’t get it right:

  1. They don’t understand their customers and didn’t take the time to really get in their heads
  2. They tried to play off current events, which is risky if not executed with real humble emotion
  3. They made their mission to sell something instead of connecting with people
  4. They believed a celebrity endorsement would save the day
  5. They faked it

I believe that what they were trying to do and failed miserably at, was to recreate the feeling from this Coke ad from the 70s:

Coke Classic Ad

What Coke did brilliantly was a bunch of things. One was that they didn’t focus on a particular current event, which there were certainly plenty of in the early ’70s. Instead, they focused on people and what they wanted for the world: perfect harmony and apple trees and aspirational peace and love. Who doesn’t want that? It was about people. No famous celebrities, no planted, cheesy product close-ups. no scripted authenticity. It was real and I still love it (and the fact that it was part of the Mad Men finale makes it even better.)

My advice to you C-suite folks, marketing mavens and brand thinkers: Spend the time to really understand your people – your audience – and make the connection.

Creating an emotional connection with people is not fast, cheap or easy. It requires slowing down for a hot second to really understand your people – your customers, your audience, your aspirational customers – and get deep in their heads. Understanding who they are, what they think about, why they buy what they buy or do what the do. It’s not wrapping up product placement into a celebrity’s hands. It’s not artificially creating something that is supposed look and feel emotional. It’s not faking it till you make it. People are too smart and can see right through you.

Authenticity creates trust. Trust creates relationships. Relationships create customers. Customers create love. Love creates revenue. In the words of Lenny Kravitz: “Let love rule.”


  • Michelle Heath

    Michelle Heath is the CEO and founder of Growth Street Marketing, and works with clients that range from fast-growing start-ups to Fortune 500 household brands. She has held strategic marketing leadership and executive roles at Fidelity Investments, J.P. Morgan and E*TRADE and went on to build a variety of high-tech start-ups from scratch, including Currensee, which was acquired by Oanda in 2013. She is a frequent blogger, contributor to Venture Fizz and conference presenter. Learn more at www.growthstreetmarketing.com.