Book Review: The Real Pepsi Challenge

The Real Pepsi Challenge:
The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Barrier in American Business

by Race in the Workplace special correspondent Adina Ba

The following review comes at a timely manner to celebrate the life of an African-American marketing legend, Edward F. Boyd, who died last week at the age of 92. Boyd is most known for his innovation and leadership in establishing niche marketing through his work at Pepsi. Boyd respected the African-American market as a unique community with everchanging needs. His work increased American consumption of Pepsi tenfold, but even more importantly, he fought for race equality every step of the way on a personal, community, and corporate level. Click here to learn more about Boyd’s life.

Walter Mack, one of the earliest presidents of Pepsi, revolutionized corporate America. In the late 1940’s, Mack, a Jewish Harvard graduate from NYC believed “that the world’s problems could be solved through the cooperation of the great powers.” Using creativity in his business techniques, Mack invented the modern day business internship by having a contest for young college graduates who were “most likely to succeed in life.” 330 men and women from 254 colleges in 45 states were part of the contest, specifically including female and black students. Thirteen impressive interns won the contest, including seven females and two African-Americans. This was the beginning of a racial change in corporate America. Each intern was to work for one year, and afterwards, Pepsi would either hire them or assist them to get placed elsewhere.

Around this time, Walter Mack hired the first ever black national sales team which would at its peak have twelve members. The main reason for this “special-markets” group was to expand Pepsi consumption among African-Americans. Although Mack’s sole purpose in this move was to gain untapped profits, his tactics were still leaps ahead of most American corporations, including his rival Coca-Cola.

The author of the book, Stephanie Capparell, molds her investigative research into a cohesive story that sometimes feels as if each character is speaking directly to you. She does not tell the simple story of competition between Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Instead, she tells the in-depth history of twelve impressive individuals and how they marketed Pepsi to black communities all over America during segregation and the civil rights era. It was at a time when they were not allowed to stay in hotels in the South and had to have separate train cars, even though they had first-class status.

This is a story of corporations, a story of breaking color barriers, a history that all Americans should be aware of. Before this team was put together, it was the norm for African-Americans in media to be shown only as caricatures like Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben. The team’s black manager, Edward F. Boyd and his Special Markets team changed the face of advertising. It would have been easy to get a black sports icon to sponsor Pepsi for their black marketing efforts, but Boyd wanted to appeal to his growing middle-class market by catering to their needs. He launched a “Leaders in Their Fields” advertising campaign and endorsed little-known black leaders in the fields of chemistry, medicine, banking, etc. These ads were popular beyond the magazines and store fronts, and were also requested by black universities and individuals.

The team used politics and the promotion of race equality to increase their sales on an individual and community basis, and the African-American market responded. Without mentors or many resources and with many risks, these twelve black leaders succeeded to deal with their white bosses, co-workers, the segregated South and white Pepsi bottlers on a daily basis. They excelled not only during their time at Pepsi, but went on to many other life accomplishments on a national and international level.

Boyd’s team consisted of William Simms, Paul Davis, William Payne, Richard Hurt, Allen McKellar, Julian Nicholas, Harvey Russell, Winston Wright, Charles Wilson, Jean Emmons, and David Watson.

Later on in Pepsi years, the Special Markets team changed shape because of new leadership. In 1962, Harvey Russell, team director, was promoted to VP in charge of special markets by executive Herbert L Barnet. This was the first VP role appointed to an African-American at a major international company. A touching moment in the book is when Capparell cites that a third of Barnet’s New York Times obituary was dedicated to his decision to elevate Russell to VP, noting the historical importance.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.