The strange case of Lady Doritos, the new snack for women that never was
For PepsiCo's press department it was clear what last week's big story was: the brand's advertisement for Doritos Blaze at the Super Bowl which paired Morgan Freeman and Missy Elliott in an "unforgettable" lip-sync rap battle with Peter Dinklage and Busta Rhymes.
If only, they must have wished, the interview with its chief executive, Indra Nooyi, released by the US podcast "Freakonomics" the day after that press release was a little more forgettable.
DID CEO GIVE THE GAME AWAY?
Billed as part 3 of a special series on “The Secret Life of C.E.O.’s, the interview told the story of how Nooyi overhauled a portfolio full of junk food, "stared down activist investors, and learned to 'leave the crown in the garage'." But it was her comment suggesting that the company was "getting ready to launch a bunch of products" designed and packaged for women including, she hinted, a less crunchy and less messy Doritos, that really attracted attention.
Women, she said, "don't like to crunch too loudly in public, and you know they don't lick their fingers generously".
And so the "Lady Doritos" was born.
THE SNACK THAT SUMS UP SEXISM
The reaction was predictable to anyone it seems except PepsiCo. As one Twitter user, Isa-Lee Wolf, put it:
"LadyDoritos sums up sexism in one chemically-flavored, chewy package.
Women are not to be heard. Men can be heard.
Women are not to be messy. Men can get as messy as they like.
Women are to settle for less. Men have no need to settle."
Perhaps PepsiCo thought that because its CEO is a woman it was immune to criticism that the idea of a new "women friendly" Doritos was patronising and demeaning.
A DELIBERATE PLOY?
Or maybe they knew exactly what they were doing and decided that the Twitter storm of derision was worth it because those people weren't the target market and instead they were playing Trump-style to their core support.
And maybe they could have got away with it. As David Waller and Rupert Younger point out in their new book The Reputation Game, if your reputation is founded upon capability and you keep delivering on that - whether that is making good tortilla chips or in the case of Uber, offering a cheap efficient taxi service, or in Ryanair's case providing cheap flights that get you from A to B - people will forgive you a lot.
However, it is equally true that each blunder, each controversy dents trust in the brand and means that when things do go wrong with the core product or service - or when the company tries to break into a new area of business - people may be less inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Of course, the most likely explanation for Lady Doritos is that everybody got so carried away by the enthusiasm of the product development and marketing people that they didn't stop to think how it might look from outside the comfortable bubble of PepsiCo HQ in Purchase, New York.
THE COMPANY WENT INTO FULL RETREAT
Whatever the explanation, by the time the story had been picked up by the mainstream media, six days after Nooyi's interview went out you could smell the burning rubber as the company went into full retreat. Nooyi's comments had been misinterpreted, it suggested.
"We already have Doritos for women - they're called Doritos," it added in a statement to the media. But why wait six days to say it?
So was it fake news, cynical marketing wheeze or just an old-fashioned cock-up? We may never know, but one thing we can be pretty sure of is that we're unlikely to see Lady Doritos on our supermarket shelves for some time yet.