Leadership and the Lady Chip, Tone-deaf or Brilliant

  • Synergistx Synergistx
  • Updated:
leadership marketing

Speaking to the CII National Council, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi outlined central components for managing crisis in her 2013 address on navigating leadership through turbulence. Perhaps she did not anticipate what ensued. On the other hand, perhaps she did.

Nooyi communicates extremely well; is a relationship builder; and, above all, maintains a high moral compass. Did we witness this emotional intelligence expert drop the ball? Or, did she simply serve it up higher than we can see?

Rocking the Chip Ship

Nevertheless, Nooyi caused quite the uproar with a few cherry-picked comments.

“[Women] don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavor into their mouth. Are there snacks for women that can be designed and packaged differently? [Yes], we are looking at it, and we’re getting ready to launch a bunch of them soon.”

Not surprisingly, these comments added to the building frustration over gender-specific marketing. Additionally, it wouldn’t be the first time corporate America turned tone-deaf ears to the subject. Taking a common object, like a screwdriver, and slapping on a gender-specific label does “not a female product make.” For example, Bic attempted to introduce a “For Her” series of pens. The reception met heavy criticism. Consequently, it is easy to guess what happened next.

The Reaction is Swift and Fierce

In a word, the comments made by the PepsiCo CEO went viral with the ensuing, unfortunate hashtag #LadyDoritos. Instantly, the twitterverse, Facebook, and the blogosphere, in general, did what it does best and unleashed a fire-hose full of anonymous comments. Likewise, late night TV and network newscasts could not get enough. Despite this, the PepsiCo communications team jumped right into the fray.

Is this Offence or Defense?

https://twitter.com/Doritos/status/960668947812093952/
In case you cannot read it, the official @Doritos account tweeted; “We already have Doritos for women — they’re called Doritos, and they’re loved by millions.”

Accolades to the team that responded with such humor to the deluge of predominantly negative comments. A PepsiCo representative added further commentary to the statement:

“The reporting on a specific Doritos product for female consumers is inaccurate. We already have Doritos for women — they’re called Doritos, and they’re enjoyed by millions of people every day. At the same time, we know needs and preferences continue to evolve, and we’re always looking for new ways to engage and delight our consumers.”

So, Was This the Plan by Leadership all Along?

Leadership through Turbulence

You would expect an expert on the subject to avoid such pitfalls. However, Ms. Nooyi’s own words affirm, “Turbulence is the beginning of a fruitful process of transformation.” Are we beginning to see a streak of brilliance in the distance?

With this in mind, consider what she had to say on the subject. As covered succinctly by thehindu.com, Nooyi lays out five lessons those in leadership can integrate to navigate tumult well.

  1. “First, accept that turbulence is here to stay. Most successful companies are those that stay calm and think down to earth rather than showing aggressiveness to shorten the crisis period.”
  2. “Don’t take an eye [off] the short term but think long.”
  3. “One should not shy away from creating an environment of adaptability.”
  4. “In turbulent times, leaders need to handle the crisis with courage and conviction.”
  5. “You cannot deliver value unless you anchor the company’s values. Values make an unsinkable ship.”

The Missing Context

While it may be easy to attribute this campaign to a strategic design, we need to delve a bit deeper. As is often the case with anything viral, details become blurry. When asked specifically about demographic differences, Nooyi included the following in this Q and A podcast session from Freakanomics:

Question: “I understand that men and women eat chips very differently. Can you tell us the differences?”

“As you watch a lot of the young guys eat the chips, they love their Doritos, and they lick their fingers with great glee, and when they reach the bottom of the bag they pour the little broken pieces into their mouth, because they don’t want to lose that taste of the flavor, and the broken chips in the bottom. Women I think would love to do the same, but they don’t. They don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavor into their mouth.”

Follow up question: “So is there a male and female version of chips that you’re playing with, or no?

“It’s not a male and female as much as ‘Are there snacks for women that can be designed and packaged differently?’ And yes, we are looking at it, and we’re getting ready to launch a bunch of them soon. For women, low-crunch, the full taste profile, not have so much of the flavor stick on the fingers, and how can you put it in a purse?”

Clearly, these comments sound like someone with a keen knowledge of consumer behavior.

CEO and Leadership

As CEO, Nooyi’s job is to create value for investors. While fully understanding the customer is important, making strategic decisions comes first. Understandably, these are not mutually exclusive. Market trends and demographic differences drive the decision-making process. Likewise, cultivating a high-quality leadership team is crucial. Nooyi elegantly summarizes an important balance:

“Leadership is hard to define and good leadership even harder. But if you can get people to follow you to the ends of the earth, you are a great leader. As a leader I am tough on myself and I raise the standard for everybody; however I am very caring because I want people to excel at what they are doing so that they can aspire to be me in the future.”

No Such Thing as Bad Press

trends

Google trends for the 30 day-period covering the “incident.”

With the run-up to the Super Bowl, typical increase in snack foods is evident. As depicted, Doritos web searches jumped along with the trend. From this chart, it is easy to see when the #LadyDoritos flag flew. Snack searches then dropped. Interestingly, after initial hype and a subsequent drop, Doritos found itself in a better position than before.

Case Closed?

All things considered, is Ms. Nooyi a brilliant strategist – initiating a pitch for her communications team to play? Alternatively, is this simply a case of counterbalancing the turbulence already at play? Most likely, it is a little bit of each. Certainly, Nooyi knew, when responding to the podcast questions, there was a chance of misinterpretation. However, the five leadership lessons for managing turbulence worked!