Pepsi’s viral failure

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Attempting to cast a net around and harness that ethereal sense of nationalism and pride is a dubious exercise at best. Trying to make something with the intent of it going viral is seldom successful. Viral is successful when it’s clever, when it’s true and when it’s honest.

I don’t know what the boardroom discussions were like when Pepsi decided to make the “Eh Oh Canada Go” chant the chant of a nation, but I know this: it was a misguided, misinformed attempt to take the attributes of successful viral campaigns, and transform them into a full-on marketing machine. Other companies attempting to do something similar — to co-opt a sort of popular culture icon as simple as a “Go Canada Go” or “Ca-Na-Da” chant — would do well to learn from Pepsi’s experience.

The anti-buzz

“I became a [Facebook] fan of this just to say how stupid it is. No company is going to tell me how to cheer. I don’t need a sports cheer marketed,” wrote Facebook member Jeff. (From the Vancouver Sun article “‘Eh Oh Canada Go’ junior hockey chant falls flat”.)

Facebook member Jeff’s reaction wasn’t unique. Jeff felt, as many did, that Pepsi’s national chant campaign was a hostile take-over of something that has no business being associated with any company or brand (other than Canada, if you’re cynical enough to view a country as a brand).

Spontaneous chants at sporting events cannot be dictated to people. They’re random, spur of the moment pieces of junk poetry — catchy enough to be repeated over and over to spirit a team to victory, and obnoxious enough to not be uttered outside the walls of a stadium or arena.

In short, they’re tricky, and they can’t be engineered by sheer will unless the sentiment around them is 100 per cent honest and sincere. Which isn’t to say that Pepsi was being devious in its attempts to get the entire nation behind a new cheer. I believe Pepsi sincerely believed this would be an awesome marketing campaign… but they must have realized the collateral damage from a campaign failure — the eye-rolling, the barroom discussions on the topic invoking the word “lame,” and the reactions of people like Jeff, quoted above in the Vancouver Sun article — could be large if not larger were the campaign not successful.

Viral successes

Few people from my generation could forget Joe, that quintessential non-threatening Canadian lad who, on behalf of the Molson company, set the record straight on Canada and Canadians. In my mind, this was a wildly successful viral campaign, culminating in a refreshed national identity (at least among beer-drinkers) and a rash of tattoo appointments to have the statement “I am Canadian” permanently etched onto the bodies of thousands of patriots.

So what sets Molson’s campaign success apart from Pepsi’s campaign failures?

Twitter pal Buck75 stated it pretty well when I put the question out there: “I knew that one would fail. Why reinvent the wheel? #gocanadago”.

Maybe it’s that simple. Sure “Go Canada Go” isn’t terribly clever. But it works: it’s effective, recognizable, and you can repeat it over and over again.

Without over analyzing what Pepsi tried to do, I think there’s an element in their chant (aside from being nearly unchantable) that teed them up for failure, and examining it in hindsight now makes it standout significantly. It’s a simple little phoneme that wouldn’t otherwise give me pause, but I see it now: the word “eh.”

On aboots, ehs and zeds

Pepsi is, for all intents and purposes, an American company. Good on them for entering, conquering and besting global markets. They’re a company out to make profit, and I can’t fault them for plying their products anywhere they can.

But whether this campaign was developed by their Canadian contingent of corporate communications staff or not, it comes across as distinctly naive, completely unaware of its own lack of depth, and consequently totally insincere. Simply put, the chant itself sounds like it was created by a bunch of Americans fixated on Canadian accents.

And one of the reasons it comes across that way is because of the inclusion of the word “Eh” in it.

Fewer things drive me nuts as a Canadian than slack-jawed mouth-breathers commenting on how I “talk funny.” No shit. I come from a different part of the world, with different traditions, different modes of speech, different tonalities of language. So do the English. So do Eastern Canadians. So do English-speaking South Africans. So do Eastern Seaboard Americans. So do… you get my drift.

We compare meaningless differences between Canadian and American culture all the time, and most Americans and Canadians get this. But to still be on about the fact that some people — forget some Canadians, but some PEOPLE — say “eh” sometimes is positively obnoxious, and it cheapens the celebration of the TRUE differences between Canadians and Americans, or Canadians and the British, or Canadians and some Congolese tribe I’ve never heard of.

“Eh” is the cheap-laughs, lowest common denominator difference between Canada and the world. And it’s not even relevant. Or true. Unless you’re from Newfoundland (I kid, I kid).

And Pepsi had the gall or lack of foresight to include it as part of their non-catchy chant.

Molson Canadian did it properly with their I Am Canadian “Joe” ad: they didn’t bother to mention “Eh.” Because it isn’t even worth mentioning.

But wait, there’s more!

The Pepsi Chant Viral Campaign also suffers from an exceedingly complex concept. They wanted to get a million people to sign up for “Cheer Nation”; they got just shy of 94,000. Pepsi’s Facebook page benefitted from a glut of new fans many of whom criticized the campaign.

And the nail in the coffin, as far as the general concept: it was an overly complicated contest involving submissions, revisions and votes.

Viral’s tricky. Each campaign is like a new experiment, and the key to it is to understanding the thoughts and feelings of the people whose attention you hope to get. It’s about hearts and minds, if I can invoke such a cliche. Above all, it should be simple, like the Joe Canadian ad.

The Joe Canadian ad for me is the benchmark of a successful nationalistic viral campaign, and there’s another key feature that made it successful: it wasn’t designed directly to sell beer. Sure, it was commissioned by Molson, but the ad didn’t end with, “And oh yeah, drink our beer.”

To be fair, neither did the Pepsi campaign. But it wasn’t sufficiently disassociated from Pepsi — it didn’t feel like it could stand on its own — and so it was ultimately a flop.

But wait, there’s less!

I don’t want to cause anyone to think I know how to design a successful viral campaign. I don’t. But there are a few takeaways here that I think are pretty self-evident.

No matter what brand is conducting the campaign, they can’t be seen as conducting it to promote their brand. In other words, it has to be genuine. This is tricky, because even the best intentions can lead to failure, and more often than not, communicators think of marketing campaigns as direct — they should sell the product/brand.

A successful viral campaign has to be compelling, funny and clever. It has to be something — an image, a phrase, a concept — that will win hearts and minds. It has to be something, as above, that resonates with people and leverages the power of your brand, but it can’t just be about selling soft drinks or beer or a credit card. It’s about making an impact on popular culture.

It’s about being selfless. And good intentions or not, Pepsi failed to come across that way. Go Canada Go!

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9 Responses to “Pepsi’s viral failure”

  1. ryan
    February 22, 2010 at 9:16 am #

    if you don’t think the eh thing is true maybe you need to start hanging out with more people from thunder bay.

    every conversation i’ve ever had with my friend from thunder bay leads me to believe every single discussion between two residents of that city sounds like like this: “how bout that goal? beauty eh?” “oh ya fer sher total beauty.”

    • Adam Rozenhart
      February 22, 2010 at 10:16 am #

      To be honest, I don’t really consider Thunder Bay to be part of Canada. 😛

  2. jeanshorts
    February 22, 2010 at 3:03 pm #

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t the chant selected from fan submissions and ohmygod is that a bunch of pictures of sex toys on the bottom right?

    But, umm, oh yeah. Didn’t people send in their chants, Pepsi chose 3, and then people supposedly voted for that god awful chant? Or maybe they already had the chant created and they tried to use this fan voting thing as a way to deflect any heat in case it went topsy turvey like it did.

    • Adam Rozenhart
      February 22, 2010 at 3:06 pm #

      Yes, it was about submissions… But the sentiment remains the same, if you ask me: Pepsi wanted to virally promote some chant (fan submitted in this case) and it failed utterly.

  3. Adam Snider
    February 22, 2010 at 3:09 pm #

    “Eh” is totally a real thing, but it’s pretty much only from a certain portion of Ontario (as are most of the cliche Canadian slang terms and pronunciations). I point that out mostly for the sake of being obnoxious.

    Other than that, I’d say that you’re pretty much spot on with your assessment of the whole “Cheer Nation” flop.

    • Adam Rozenhart
      February 22, 2010 at 3:12 pm #

      Thanks Adam.

      What I’m really trying to say is the notion that Canadians always punctuate their sentences with the word “eh” is as nourishing to the debate as saying that all Americans are a bunch of gun-crazy hicks, or that all French people are rude surrender-monkeys, or that the Spaniards… Hey, wait a minute. What IS the deal with Spaniards?

  4. Liam
    February 23, 2010 at 12:56 pm #

    I thoroughly enjoyed that. Great post!

    Viral marketing is kind of the the newest model in a long line of vehicles that advertisers try to ride. I once saw a film where someone documented an ad agency’s attempts to harness, capture or otherwise “get” what “cool” is. In an effort to communicate in their target market’s language, it seems companies will always look for a new edge, which happens to be viral marketing right now.

    Props to them if they can pull it off well. I would imagine it’s tough to balance the feelings of your target market and the need to justify your actions to shareholders/decision-makers.

  5. Melanie Nathan
    February 24, 2010 at 9:37 am #

    Great write-up Adam. Being a person who earns part of their living creating targeted web content for specific purposes, I can attest to how hard it is to even come up with ideas that will be well received and hence get you to your goals. I, for one, applaud Pepsi’s efforts and their willingness to interact with their market. Maybe they should have hired a professional though 😉

    • Adam Rozenhart
      February 24, 2010 at 11:22 am #

      I don’t know that hiring a pro would have helped. Powerful, effective and honest viral is incredibly hard to do, and in my opinion, it’s rarely a willful act. What one person thinks will be viral, then rest of the planet may not.

      I think it’s good for marketers and communicators to dabble in this stuff, but they have to tread with caution. One false move can put people off your brand for a long time.