Corporations like PepsiCo will never be 'woke,' but here's how they can be better

Corporations like PepsiCo will never be 'woke,' but here's how they can be better
This is a no.
Image: YouTube

On the spectrum of wokeness, American multinational soda corporations tend to land somewhere near dead last — and good ol’ PepsiCo just took a giant nosedive toward the bottom.

The company incited well-deserved social media outrage after its ad, featuring Kendall Jenner pacifying a bunch of cops with a can of Pepsi, went viral Tuesday. Viewers accused the company of appropriating the Black Lives Matter movement to sell its sugary soda, instead of doing what socially conscious consumers have been begging food and beverage corporations to do forever: use their power for social good.

To be fair, Pepsi has made tangible efforts in recent years to be socially responsible — at least more than you’d expect from a company that markets soda and orange dust. And there’s no way for any corporation to ever be fully “woke” when its ultimate responsibility is to its shareholders, not society. 

But that’s no excuse for taking advantage of a growing social movement for a viral marketing campaign. Even though the company later pulled the ad and apologized, its behavior was part of a larger pattern: companies often co-opt social causes to promote their brands, without ever addressing the roots of the injustices themselves. 

PepsiCo can’t attach itself to a social movement like Black Lives Matter, which explicitly rejects capitalism, without completely embarrassing itself. Chester Cheetah will never be Che Guevara.

But there are things big corporations like Pepsi can do to actually support social justice efforts in the future.

1. Support company unionization efforts and offer a living wage

You’d be hard-pressed to find any major corporation behind a unionization or living wage campaign. Still, paying people enough so they can live — hence the term “living wage” — is, by definition, almost always the moral choice. 

Some corporations have even voluntarily surpassed federal and state laws and offered their lowest paid staff a living wage. Aetna, for example, announced in January 2015 that they’d raise all of the wages of their lowest paid workers to $16 per hour.

Other companies should take note: If you want to do good, start with your own employees.

2. Examine the company’s historical relationship with communities of color

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In the 1940s, when Coca-Cola and many other brands aggressively marketed their products to white consumers, PepsiCo chose instead to focus on a neglected market: the black community. The relationship lasted for decades, but it’s obviously complicated. PepsiCo was tapping into a community that other companies simply wouldn’t acknowledge, yet selling them a product that didn’t exactly promote public health — which many called exploitative.

Fast forward to 2013, when a report from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University found that black youth — who disproportionately live with diabetes, obesity, and other negative health issues — were twice as likely to to view ads for sugary drinks like Pepsi than white youth.

Corporations need to be exceptionally sensitive in how they advertise to marginalized communities. Their marketing should be responsible, catering to diverse communities across race and nationality without exploiting them. 

3. Recruit more women and people of color for management positions

As a woman of color, PepsiCo’s CEO and Chairman Indra Nooyi is pretty unique in her field. A survey conducted by professional services firm Grant Thornton found that women make up just 25 percent of senior executives worldwide. Meanwhile, less than 3 percent of board directors at Fortune 500 companies are black, Asian or Latina women

Promoting women — and specifically women of color — to management positions may not solve larger structural inequalities, but it can inspire social change on a micro level. A 2016 study by Peterson Institute for International Economics found that companies with female leadership were actually more profitable than those who lacked it.

4. Use foundation money to support a wide variety of nonprofits

PepsiCo has donated more than $900 million to charity since 2005, according to the corporation. It supports a broad range of causes, including access to clean water, sustainable agriculture, and empowerment programs for women and young girls.

As much as PepsiCo gives — and fairly generously, Inside Philanthropy reports — it often directs its donations to large, well-established NGOs like the Red Cross and Save the Children. Lesser known grassroots and community-based nonprofits, like, are reportedly less likely to receive funding.

With the kind of reach and pocketbook these corporations have, supporting small and impactful organizations could make a huge difference.

5. Be transparent about manufacturing

Image: J. Harpaz/AP/REX/Shutterstock

An Oxfam report recently gave PepsiCo a score of 49 percent on its sustainability report card, slightly less than its rival Coca-Cola (which scored 57 percent) but more than other similarly sized companies.

The organization credited Pepsi’s “zero tolerance” commitment to land grabs, but said the company falls short in its support of women and local farmers. According to the report, Pepsi didn’t appear to have a system for identifying countries where the most basic labor rights were at risk. 

Consumers have a right to know if their junk food was responsibly produced, as depressing as that undoubtedly feels to read. 

6. Don’t be a jerk

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The next time you’re thinking of appropriating a major social justice movement to help market your #brand, take a minute. Ask yourself what you’re doing and if it’ll get you in trouble, and not just because you’re worried about your stock price.

Corporations will never be “woke” — but they still have a responsibility to care.

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