Pepsi’s decision last year to skip the Super Bowl (for the first time in 23 years) and spend the $20 million instead on a pro-social, crowdsourced effort it dubbed the Pepsi Refresh Project was a very public display of a major brand leveraging social media and cause-wired marketing for social good.
Displaying a social media savvy previously unassociated with the brand, the initiative's first year grants, ranging from $5,000 to $250,000, were awarded to 400 winners, including helping rebuild communities that were disrupted by the BP oil spill in the Gulf. A staggering 77 million votes were cast through Facebook and Twitter, where participants used the hashtag #PepsiRefresh to participate.
While not without some controversy during its first year, the results have been impressive enough for PepsiCo to recommit funding to the effort. It will, once again, sit out the Super Bowl — except for lending Pepsi Max brand to a Crash the Super Bowl crowdsourced effort with sister brand Doritos, a partnership that has also generated a little heat from critics for some of the controversial user-generated spots.
“It was a big deal,” commented Carisa Bianchi, president of TBWA/Chiat/Day, to the New York Times. “It really placed Pepsi as a modern brand.”
Pepsi Refresh “was not a corporate philanthropy effort,” said Shiv Singh, head of digital for PepsiCo Beverages America, to the Times. “This was using brand dollars with the belief that when you use these brand dollars to have consumers share ideas to change the world, the consumers will win, the brand will win, and the community will win. That was a big bet. No one has done it on this scale before.”
That's all well and good. But did the project sell more cans of Pepsi or magnify brand awareness?
Pepsi sales fell 6% in 2010, midst an overall 4.3% decline in carbonated beverage sales. But according to Singh, the project was not about driving sales. “It was designed to drive brand health. We look at brand equity, brand health and sales — and we have seen movement in all of them.”
This year’s Refresh Project will reflect changes hard-won from 2010’s accusations of vote-rigging and unfair alliances. The $250,000 grant category will be eliminated, according to the Wall Street Journal, with twice as many $50,000 or less grants awarded, and a limit of five (down from 10) causes allowed for daily balloting.
A lottery system to select charities monthly will eliminate first-come, first-served applicants, and the categories of environment and health will be dropped as they attracted health-advocacy groups off-mission from “the lighthearted nature of its brand.”
Pepsi plans to expand the Refresh project to China and parts of Latin America in 2011 says Chairman and CEO Indra K. Nooyi. "It's a matter of, 'What does this brand stand for in terms of doing something positive in the world?'"
Frank Cooper, Pepsi's Chief Consumer Engagement Officer puts Pepsi’s social media initiatives in bigger picture context.
"We want to become a catalyst in the culture rather than act like a big brand announcing something," says Cooper. "We knew that our consumers wanted to play a central role in developing and promoting ideas that they believed would move the world forward."
Call it the cause that refreshes.