Pepsi Vs. United Airlines: A race to the the bottom

April 13, 2017

Pepsi Vs. United Airlines: A race to the the bottom

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To say it was a bizarre week in social media would be an understatement. First, there was the Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner, then United Airlines practically broke the internet, and we won’t even mention the Sean Spicer press conference. Between Pepsi and United Airlines, the obvious winner for the biggest debacle is United, but we wanted to know by how much and if there were some insights we could gain by analyzing social media.

Healing the World One Pepsi Can at a Time

The now infamous Kendall Jenner/ Pepsi commercial generated an astonishing amount of negative press. In a four-day period, there were almost 1 million social media mentions just around these specific keywords:

Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial monitor

Beyond those initial mentions, the online conversation had the potential to be much, much more damaging to Pepsi’s brand as those original mentions could potentially be seen by over 2 billion people with the additional spread of over 800 million. Those must have been busy days for the Pepsi PR and marketing departments. It will be interesting to see how quickly Coca-Cola and other brands maximize on this opportunity to “add insult to injury” and put out their own ad campaigns capitalizing on Pepsi’s poor choices. One could imagine Coke’s marketing departments are conducting their own aggressive social monitoring campaigns to identify key influencers and hashtags that they will utilize to create entertaining ads poking fun of Pepsi.

And yet, as negative as that press was for Pepsi, it pales in comparison to the fiasco United Airlines is currently facing or the opportunity competing airlines are anticipating.

Kendall Jenner pepsi commercial reach and span of social mentions
Pepsi and Kendall Jenner commercial

The Holidays Came Early

Depending on which company you work for, this is either a marketing nightmare or the gift you never imagined you’d receive in your career. In just two short days, well over 2 million people took to the internet to talk about United Airlines, creating an unimaginable PR mess.

United Airlines fiasco

What’s remarkable about the United Airlines mess is how many unique authors are online contributing to the conversation and creating original content. Over 1 million unique authors have posted something about United Airlines. This equates to a tremendous reach and spread around the world. This will certainly not be easy or cheap to clean up. According to Forbes, “shares of United fell as much as 6.3% in pre-market trading, dropping $1.4 billion from the now $21 billion company by market cap. By early trading Tuesday, shares were down 4%.”

United airlines customer service nightmare

To put it in perspective and help you visualize the magnitude of United’s problem, here is a side-by-side comparison of the Pepsi /Kendall Jenner ad conversation and United Airlines. Also, keep in mind that the monitors for United Airlines have only been running about half as long as those for the Pepsi commercial.

United airlines and pepsi Kendall jenner commercial comparison United airlines and pepsi Kendall jenner commercial comparison


Another interesting insight from the comparison of these two events comes from analyzing the social media demographics. With the Pepsi/Jenner debacle, more women than men commented online, while with the United Airlines disaster, men were more vocal than women. In both cases, regardless of gender, Twitter was the platform of choice.


United airlines mentions by gender

United Airlines

Pepsi Kendall jenner mentions by gender



Identifying Influencers

Social media is all about people. People interacting with other people. People interacting with brands. The action is intrinsically human and social media listening has the power to turn the masses into individuals. Sometimes key influencers turn up where you would least expect them. In the case of United Airlines, one of the most shared tweets didn’t come from a major news agency or a big celebrity.

Nick is an actor with a following of 5,923 and yet his one tweet has been retweeted over 55 thousand times. He was able to create the right message at the right time and it resonated in a big way.

Likewise, Jayse D. Anspach only has 1,834 followers, yet his video of the United Airlines passenger being forced off the plane generated 167 thousand retweets, 8 thousand comments, and 146 thousand likes.

Manageable Crisis Turned Unstoppable Monster

For United Airlines there were too many videos and the entire incident went viral too quickly to be contained. However, CEO Munoz had an opportunity, albeit slight, to begin rebuilding the lost trust in the United Airlines brand. He needed to rebuke the act as unnecessary and totally inappropriate and make the promise to “personally investigate and get to the bottom of this” as well as make an immediate and public change in policy.

But he didn’t do that. Not right away.

What Munoz did do, which sent another wave of irate tweets through the twittersphere, was make excuses for the way this passenger was treated, and attempt to discredit him in order to justify his removal from the plane. In a baffling move, “Munoz doubled down in a letter sent to United employees on Monday afternoon, describing the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent.” He also said that “employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. The apology by the CEO was, at best, lukewarm or, at worst, trying to dismiss the incident.”

In contrast, upon seeing all the negative feedback from their commercial, Pepsi pulled the ad and issued an apology. They explained the intended theme of the ad, acknowledged they “missed the mark,” and apologized.

Here is a graph of the visual play-by-play of how effective Pepsi’s apology was in diffusing the situation. On April 5th Pepsi sent out the above tweet at 10:45 am. There was a massive spike building at that time. That spike came to a head around 12 pm and then quickly fell back down. Social mentions regarding the commercial tapered off for about a day and then spiked again Thursday night. But this spike wasn’t nearly as high as the one the day before and the decline back down into typical levels was even sharper and more abrupt. So what happened Thursday night to bring Pepsi back into the conversation?

Kendall Jenner Pepsi Commercial

Remember what we said about social media turning the masses into individuals? Here’s another example.

On Thursday, President Trump ordered a missile strike against Syria. A few key individuals were able to garner disproportionate internet attention with clever tweets about Kendall solving the Syria problem with a can of Pepsi. These tweets went viral causing Pepsi’s mentions to spike. And then, as quickly as fame on the internet comes to a person, it can leave them and Pepsi’s advertising woes are yesterday’s news.

Obviously, people are still talking about Pepsi and making jokes about the ad. It will be a meme for at least a few days, but compared to the fallout United Airlines is facing, the consequences will be minimal. United lost a lot of money over the mishandling of their social media; because essentially that’s what happened. There was an incident on a plane, which thanks to Twitter, quickly became a global scandal.

It is highly unlikely that a company the size of United Airlines wasn’t aware of the PR storm headed their way Monday morning. Through a social monitoring software like NUVI, they would have monitors in place to alert them of negative sentiment. They would have also had social media managers in place to watch the various social media channels and respond to customer service inquiries or problems via those same channels. The question then becomes, with access to all this data, the capacity to immediately learn of and respond to any online customer, how did this become the issue that it is? How in the world did United Airlines not openly and honestly confront their mistake by making a public statement immediately?

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