Leadership and the Lady Chip, Tone-deaf or Brilliant

  • Synergistx Synergistx
  • Updated:
leadership marketing

Not long ago Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo spoke to ‘Managing uncertainty: leadership in turbulent times’. I’ll bet she did not expect to find herself causing the turbulence. Or did she?

This is something quite out of character. Nooyi possesses great communication skills, 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

In case you have not yet heard about this. Nooyi, a female, 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, this added to the building frustration on gender-specific marketing. Additionally, it wouldn’t be the first time corporate America fell on it’s tone-deaf ears on the subject. Taking a common object, like a screwdriver, and slapping on a label, does not make 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 happens next.

The Reaction is Swift and Fierce

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

Is this Offence or Defense?

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.”

Kudos to the team that responded, with such humor, to that fire-hose of  predominantly negative comments. Further, a PepsiCo representative added 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 from Leadership all Along?

Leadership through Turbulence

In the beginning of this article, we noted that Ms. Nooyi spoke to a conference about this very topic. You would expect an expert on the subject to avoid such pitfalls. However, in her own words: “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 has to say on the subject. As covered succinctly in the article: Stay calm during turbulent times: Indra Nooyi, Ms. Nooyi lays out four lessons for leadership to deal with it.

  1. 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 on the short term but think long.
  3. One should not shy away from creating an environment of adaptability.
  4. You cannot deliver value unless you anchor the company’s values. Values make an unsinkable ship.

The Missing Context

While it is easy to attribute this campaign to a strategic decision, 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’s response included specifics. Consider this Q and A 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?”

Not only does this sound professional, it also sounds like someone with a deep knowledge of consumer behavior.

CEO and Leadership

As CEO her job is to create value for investors. While fully understanding the customer is important, making strategic decisions comes first. With that said, 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 summarizes it elegantly:

“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 Bad Press


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

With the run-up to the Super bowl, the typical increase in snack foods is evident. Doritos jumped along with the trend. From this chart, it is easy to see when the #LadyFingers flag flew. While the snacks searches dropped off the chaos took off. Interestingly, after the initial hype died down, Doritos found itself in a better position than before.

Case Closed?

All things considered, is Ms. Nooyi a brilliant strategist – laying out a softball for her communications team to play off of? Alternatively, is this simply a case of following her own turbulence plan? Most likely, it is a little bit of each. Certainly she knew, when responding to the podcast questions, there was a chance of misunderstanding. However, the four lessons for leadership in turbulence worked.

All people are different. This goes beyond personal statistics such as gender, educational level, ethnicity, and race.  We have different tastes, motivations, and desires. Such a wonderful thing it is too! Without it, we would be a legion of drones. Recognizing the differences does not cause segregation or alienation; it is simply accepting the truth. How we use that information is where judgement comes into play. In other words:

“Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a behavior.” – Mike Gillespie, Founder/CEO of BlueEQ

Do you have any additional thoughts on the subject?