Back to the Future of Branding

It was a very good, and not so very good week for big ad agencies.

This week, we reached Oct. 21, 2015—or Back to the Future Day—and many of the brand giants featured in the 1989 film, such as Nike, USA Today and Pepsi, capitalized brilliantly on the film’s nostalgia with campaigns showcasing their original integrations in the film.

Yet, it was inside one of those brands, Pepsi, that I came across an interesting intersection this week, and notable commentary on the rapid evolution of communications.

Even before I get there, it’s fascinating to hear how Pepsi originally found its way into the Back to the Future trilogy. Here’s a quote from co-screenwriter Bob Gale as featured in AdWeek:

“We wanted to make a very strong statement about the difference between 1955 and 1985 and we thought one visual way of doing that would be to pick brands whose logos changed over those 30 years…For example, the Coca-Cola logo has never changed since what 1920 or something? It’s the same today as it always has been. But the Pepsi logo has changed many times. So we deliberately said we want to be associated with Pepsi because when we’re back in the past the Pepsi logo will look very different than the Pepsi logo people are used to seeing in 1985.”

Pepsi has been intentional about linking its brand to evolution, and this week’s tough words by a PepsiCo exec seemed to reinforce that point quite well.

Travel back in time with me, all the way to October 15, 2015. (Yep, just last week.) The president of PepsiCo’s global beverage group, Brad Jakeman is on stage in Orlando, Florida speaking at the Association of National Advertisers’ Masters of Marketing event.

Jakeman took the stage for a fiery presentation to argue that most global advertising agencies are stuck in a mind-set from more than 20 years ago. He took on the lack of diversity in big agency leadership, the “pollution” of forced advertising content, and the demise of the big agency retainer model. He argued for more disruption, fresh thinking and the need for this largely static industry to evolve. (It’s not about creating 4 ideas with a $2 million budget, he said, but more often about creating 400 ideas with a $20,000 budget.)

It’s not the first time that a brand leader has called on his or her industry to “get out of the past” in order to drive greater innovation. It’s reminiscent of Peter Thiel’s famous words from theNational Review when he said, “We were promised flying cars and we got 140 characters,” calling for similar disruption in the tech sector.

There’s no doubt that we’ve seen enormous innovations in how and where we communicate since Marty McFly’s high school days. Given the rise of America’s creative start-up culture (fueled by YouTube, Etsy and so many others), it’s easier than ever for small brands to compete on the same stages as behemoth ones. A call for nimble, fresh thinking is never out of style, but it’s what comes from this “call” to the big ad agencies that will be worth watching.

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