This post is a response to the excellent analysis of Dr. Pepper’s new Ad Campaign that Shennandoah Diaz wrote at BrassKnucklesMedia.com, “Lessons Learned from Dr. Pepper’s Facebook Fiasco.” Her analysis is on point about what can happen when a brand doesn’t take their entire audience into account. I’ve added my analysis of the issue to get into what motivations are at play when a brand chooses to bring gender and sex into its marketing. I’m always interested when men’s and women’s issues become the focus of pop culture controversy, and I think it’s important to keep the dialogue going so that, as people, we can find the middle together.
Intentionally or not, Diet Soda have garnered a reputation as a female drink. No doubt, Cindy Crawford’s “It’s Beautiful” Diet Pepsi commercial, complete with her high-waisted 90’s jeans, was partly responsible. In any eventuality, diet soda has been largely the domain of the fairer sex, and I have found that there are few men who prefer diet soda over regular, and most of us would prefer to have a Dos Equis over a soda. But more on that in a moment.
When Dr. Pepper’s new ad campaign hit Monday Night Football, I saw it, laughed, and then wondered what the backlash would be immediately.
I’m a guy. I drink Dr. Pepper. I remember when soda companies began making a strong play at branding diet versions of their sodas to men in 2007-2008 with Coke Zero. I was living in South America then, and I remember the It had a black masculine label, compared to the lighter grey Diet Coke. The ingredients had changed enough to justify calling it a different product. But it was still a diet drink. You ostensibly drank it to lose weight, which has never been something I cared about, never mind the irony of drinking carbonated syrup to lose weight. Coke Zero was successful, though. I found myself in a few months drinking more Coke Zeroes than all the diet cokes I had consumed in my entire life. Even though I intentionally ignore diet drinks, I found myself consuming Coke Zero.
Now Dr. Pepper is going after the male demographic as well. But I think their intention has gone overboard. In much the same way that too much sugar overwhelms our taste buds and makes us feel a bit ill, their clumsy attempt at masculine branding left its audience slightly uncomfortable. “It’s not for women,” lacks all subtlety. It defines itself by excluding. It doesn’t say what Dr. Pepper Ten is, it only says what it is not.
Here’s why it almost works:
Men are subtly discouraged from early childhood to not be associated with girlie stuff. Don’t throw like a girl, don’t cry, don’t wear pink, and so on. It’s a powerful social force, and it’s not fair. But boys grow into men encouraged to avoid associating their identity with the feminine. This means they can’t consume feminine drinks. This standard does not go both ways. Girls are not nearly so discouraged from consuming something masculine. The women who love scotch over coconut flavored rum earn special favor in the company of men. Men who love coconut flavored rum, and choose it over scotch, end up being made fun of by men and women alike.
So Dr. Pepper did something that on the surface rings very true with men. They said, hey guys, this is
masculine, and you know it’s masculine because it’s not feminine. But, as Shennandoah pointed out, that’s a really ham-handed way of defining a brand. Just look at how effective Dos Equis and Heineken have been at their masculine branding, and how they have done it with the conscious inclusion of women.
Dos Equis and Heineken show you the product of being a man’s man, and then indirectly associate powerful masculine qualities with their brand. They tell the story of calm, focused, cool men living adventurous lives, who also enjoy their beer. There isn’t an overt rejection of anyone other than less manly men, which no one really seems to have a problem with because those men wish they were more manly to begin with. Further, women are celebrated in their own right, and their presence in your life is shown as going hand in hand with exhibiting true masculinity. Both Dos Equis and Heineken are stating that if you’re a real man, living a life you love, women like to be around you. I think that’s true. Women tend to get interested when a man has a real sense of purpose and direction and he knows what he wants.
Dr. Pepper, on the other hand, just says, “This is a Boys only club. Women, get lost.” This has its appeal. Men and women both need to have their own domains to be themselves. And I think that men are searching for an identity in this culture that they can call their own. The borders around so much territory over which men had sole domain for years has indeed been blurred by inclusiveness, as well as the identities of other parts of our community that have been finding their voices in the last 100 years. Inclusiveness is the order of the day. So it’s damning when Dr. Pepper has an overtly exclusive message.
Let’s acknowledge that men have a deep desire to have a boys-only area. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the word “mancave” ubiquitous on HGTV. This desire can go unacknowledged because it is very risky in this culture for any one group to say, no body else (but our community) is allowed beyond these velvet ropes. It’s not necessarily allowed, but I don’t think it’s automatically an inappropriate statement to make, on the part of men or women. But I’m not surprised there was a great deal of backlash. Women will be upset when a man tells them they can’t do something. Especially with suffrage and reproductive choice echoing in the recent memory of American culture. You don’t tell anyone that they don’t have a right to do something. Unless he’s a man, and he’s telling a woman she can’t do something. You can tell him to not do that.
Dr. Pepper’s branding misstep was an attempt to appeal to this unspoken desire. They did really find a deep desire in their audience to appeal to. But I think it can be argued that it was the wrong desire to focus on, and the resulting ad campaign missed the mark.
The comparison to the subtle branding of Dos Equis and Heineken is illustrative of the real branding lesson. Those brands are more powerful because they define masculinity by saying what it is, and they immediately associate their brands with one of the most epic figures of masculinity in the last 200 years: one of my heroes, Ernest Hemingway. Dr. Pepper limited its message by only defining masculinity by saying what it isn’t, and making a melodramatic association to one-dimensional action heroes. [Aside: It should be expected that the diet version of a soft drink will have weaker branding than the harder stuff.] It should be expected that the Dr. Pepper action hero marketing campaign comes across as a cheap knockoff of the epic drama of the Most Interesting Man in the World. Arnold will never ever measure up to Hemingway. Ever. I don’t care how much he weighs, or how big his explosion is, or how big his gun is for that matter.
Keep Conan the Barbarian.
I’ll stick with Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts on this one. How did Dr. Pepper’s commercial strike you? What’s your take on this analysis? Post your feedback in the comments.
Hope this helps.