Pepsi’s Pioneers: An Early Experiment in Diversity and Multicultural Marketing

To celebrate Black History Month, we’re going to share stories of Black pioneers in business and leadership who were Young, Restless, and Creative. First up, is a look into the first corporation to take a risk on Black consumers, and the Black sales team who led the way.

Black America’s purchasing power—estimated at $1.2 trillion in 2015—is a point of pride for many Black Americans and a point of interest for numerous brands and advertisers. But, Black consumers went overlooked, ignored, and underestimated for much of the 20th century. Many companies refused to hire- let alone- think of selling their products to Black Americans. Black people were seldom featured in advertising albeit ads that played heavily off of stereotypes such as the “mamie figure” or the “jester like coon”. These stereotypes, as well as other offensive caricatures were another source of humiliation for Black Americans that reinforced their place in America’s social hierarchy.

However, there were some exceptions to the rule. In the 1940’s Pepsi was working to catch up to Coca-Cola in the cola wars. These major American brands, founded in 1893 and 1892 respectively, at times displayed many of those aforementioned stereotypes in their own commercials. To compete with Coca-Cola, Pepsi did a big push that included the first jingle ever recorded and was selling twice as much soda per bottle than Coca-Cola. Additionally, Pepsi did something unusual for its time: it decided to pursue Black America’s purchasing power and go after the “Negro market”.

Stephanie Capparell tells Pepsi’s story in her book, “The Real Pepsi Challenge”.

Pepsi’s CEO Walter Mack decided to go after Black consumers by launching one of the earliest corporate internship programs. In 1940, he hired Pepsi’s first Black salesman, Herman Smith—a well-known ad executive in the “Negro Newspaper” business. That year, Mack held an essay contest to recruit Black college graduates. The winners, Allen McKeller and Jeanette Maud went to New York to meet with CEO Walter Mack. 24 years before the Civil Rights Movement and 14 years before the Brown v. the Board of Education ruling, Walter Mack hired one of the first Black sales teams in corporate America. World War II temporarily hindered his efforts, but in 1947 Mack resumed his project when he hired Edward Boyd to lead the new team and the company’s marketing to Black Americans. At the time, Boyd was working at the National Urban League in community relations. He also had experience managing federal housing programs during World War II and spent time trying to build a career in Hollywood.

A meeting of the team that was to capture the “Negro market” on Pepsi’ behalf.

Boyd hired a team with a wide variety of professional experience including the likes of Jean F. Emmons, one of the first Black Americans with an MBA, and Harlem journalist, Richard Hunt. Boyd’s team was responsible for selling Pepsi in predominantly Black communities, including the Jim Crow South, and developing marketing campaigns to build awareness and favorability within these communities. Boyd’s team became Pepsi’s official ambassadors to these Black communities, at times receiving celebrity treatment in the towns they visited. They were a rare image: Black professionals entrusted with representing a major corporation. They met with Pepsi’s bottlers, community leaders, churches, and local celebrities to promote the Pepsi brand.

Boyd and his team also directed some of the first advertising campaigns to show Black Americans in aspirational settings. Unlike most of the ads at the time, Pepsi’s ads featured Black middle class families as well as prominent national figures enjoying Pepsi. One of their most notable campaigns, called “Leaders in their Fields,” featured prominent Black figures such as diplomat Ralph Bunche, nationally known photographer Gordon Parks, and hat designer Mildred Blount. The ads paid homage to prominent Black figures in ways they were not typically recognized. The fresh take and positive perspective of Blacks in these ads helped Pepsi build brand loyalty among Black consumers.

Pepsi’s sales team was successful. In some markets, such as Chicago, they outperformed Coca-Cola. However, their success was not without struggle. Boyd and his team were representatives of a major corporation in the 1940’s, before the Civil Rights Movement. Their presence in Pullman cars on trains would often upset White passengers. And despite the value they added to the Pepsi Corporation, many team members received lower salaries than their white counterparts, regardless of their higher qualifications.

Even Pepsi couldn’t escape the reality of the times. Their success with Black consumers meant attaching their brand to the negative stigma associated with Black Americans. In 1949, CEO Walter Mack told an audience of Pepsi bottlers, “We’re going to have to give Pepsi a little more status, a little more class — in other words, we’re going to have to develop a way whereby it will no longer be known as a nigger drink”.  Mack’s words signified the end of their relationship. In 1950, Boyd left Pepsi and went back to the public sector. Boyd’s departure slowed support for the team’s initial goal, and eventually the team disbanded. Only one member of the original team of twelve, Harvey C. Russell, rose to leadership. In 1962, Russell became the first Black man to reach the level of vice president at a major corporation.

Without realizing it, Pepsi and Edward Boyd’s team became pioneers in multicultural marketing and making the business case for diversity. While Pepsi’s early forays into multicultural marketing and diversity were short-lived, the company came to rely heavily on both years later. In fact, in 2016, the American Advertising Federation’s Mosaic Center awarded Pepsi with the Game Changer Award for a campaign they did with Fox’s hit show, Empire. Pepsi is a global company that relies heavily on a diverse workforce. Seventy years later, after Boyd and Pepsi’s unprecedented strategy, multicultural marketing and diversity in business are now top-of-mind for consumers and businesses alike. Both concepts have evolved into mini-industries of their own, existing to guide corporations through the new cultural landscape of America. While their story is not widely taught, it is one of the many lesser known stories of pioneers who took risks to move the consciousness of society forward.

Empire star, Jussie Smullet in his Pepsi commercial which as seamlessly weaved into the plot of the show’s second season.

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