Why is it that sometimes we get it so wrong despite the best of intentions?

By: Karl Daly


We all do it, don’t we? In work or in our personal lives. We think we have come up with a great idea but when we play it out it backfires spectacularly.

Even the well- known global brands with tons of investment behind them get it wrong sometimes. Remember 2017’s Pepsi global ad campaign featuring Kendell Jenner? It had to be pulled after only 24 hours based on a massive negative backlash. In short, the story centred around a big protest by lots of attractive people with inoffensive placards dancing and singing whilst being observed by serious looking police troops. To ease the tensions a young supermodel who is luckily doing a photo shoot nearby, steps out and brings all the sides together by sharing out a few Pepsi’s!

Pepsi’s intention as they described it was ‘to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding’ which is in line with the brand message they have used successfully for many years. But sadly, on this occasion it was interpreted by many as an unfortunately simplistic world view when people are protesting in so many countries about serious issues of life and death.

To their credit, Pepsi immediately apologised and confessed they had clearly “missed the mark” and the advert was withdrawn. But the damage was already done. It’s not uncommon for organisations (and people!) to have very positive intentions, but when the time comes to deliver the message something falls over. So, what is the real issue in this, and many other cases? Could it be empathy?

We normally think of empathy in relation to people but there are huge parallels for businesses, teams and brands also. Have you ever received a message from senior leadership or ‘corporate’ which just totally misread the current mood of people in your business? And often as with Pepsi, where the intent may have been a positive one, the impact was unfortunately the opposite.

Organisations are often so focused inwardly on what they need to do to be successful that their behaviour ‘misses the mark’ or in many cases creates a negative reaction internally, externally or both. The recent headlines plaguing United Airlines provides another shocking example. And it’s not to say that the deadlines and numbers (or even a bit of introspection) is not important. The danger is when we get so absorbed, we lose sight of a world point of view beyond our own. I believe we should challenge ourselves as individuals, leaders and businesses to constantly look outside ourselves, and to look actively for different perspectives, not just assume what those perspectives might be. So, while there may be no such thing as bad publicity, there’s always room for a little more empathy.

Karl Daly

Karl has 15+ years of experience within consulting and in-house leadership roles which cross geographies, sectors and industries. Most recently he has led a global team of experts to develop and deliver innovative development interventions across Asia, the Americas, Europe and Australia.