Pepsi’s Social Media Challenge

    November 12, 2008
    WebProNews Staff

Recently, PepsiCo and Edelman Digital staged a small event to tap the minds of 25 social media marketing experts about how best to engage the online community. The event began with mystery packages and ended with a discussion in a special branded area of FriendFeed called the Pepsi Cooler.

The results, though, seem a little flat.

Pepsi did accomplish a couple of things: Influential bloggers were intrigued enough to blog about the company, and in an era where conversations are emphasized, a conversation did thus ensue about the Pepsi brand.

Among marketers, though, not young customers like they ultimately want.
Pepsi's Social Media Challenge
The company set off the new initiative with an elaborate stunt to be sure they got the top 25’s attention. At 20-minute intervals a courier delivered a box with an assortment of Pepsi cans. The first two packages contained vintage, empty cans, and the third and final one was packed with a half-dozen full cans in Pepsi’s new packaging. The cans seemed to evoke little in the viewers, who may not have noticed the new “smile” in the logo, but saw very plainly in new media lower case: pepsi.

Pepsi was apparently very serious about the delivery process. One recipient blogs that the courier refused to deliver all three packages at once, and returned to the driveway to wait out the remaining 19 minutes or so as required by the sender.

And finally, a letter that read, “You’re part of a handful of digital and social influencers we’re reaching out to regarding a multiyear, companywide transformation.” The meeting place would be the aforementioned Pepsi Cooler on FriendFeed.
Pepsi's Social Media Challenge
As intriguing as that is (though, unless a vintage can collector, one might feel a little short-changed by the lack of product in the remaining dozen), it’s hard to tell, judging from the comments at FriendFeed, what solid social media advice this meeting of the minds revealed. Much of it seems derailed into questions about why Pepsi chose FriendFeed instead of Twitter, or criticism of Pepsi’s insistence on a closed and moderated-for-profanity format.

The question, as posed: “…how would you, moving forward guide the Pepsi brand in engaging folks like you through social media?”

Interesting question, but it seems like the wrong target. The target, as revealed in the conversation, was the younger generation, which makes more sense. Try to think of one person over 25 who doesn’t have his cola preference already set in stone, who either openly embraced the choice of a new generation or didn’t.

The suggestions from the crowd were disappointingly standard: celebrity endorsements, product placement, sponsorships, community service, be more like Zappos and Dell. One dared to suggest taste was the most important aspect of Pepsi’s brand and stunts like New Coke and Crystal Pepsi were to be avoided. Others echoed with cheers for Diet Pepsi and warnings not to change the formula.

And in this process, very few suggestions about changing the marketing formula surfaced either.

But it’s not an easy question, is it? What would be an aspect of something so perfunctory in our lives as a choice between Pepsi and Coke? It’s not something one goes around thinking about. There are diehard devotees of each brand, but one presumably would be hard pressed to find widespread loyalty such that a customer refuses to accept the competitor’s substitute. (Waiting tables through college, I’d estimate maybe 5 percent of my customers refused to accept Coke if the restaurant had a deal with Pepsi. That’s a generous estimate.)

Social media marketing, in its most basic form, entails getting people to talk about your product or to talk to you about it, but Jason Falls, one of the social media experts tapped for the event, blogged about his own struggle to find a reason to do so.

“I can’t really think of any reason to have a conversation with Pepsi. I can’t think of anything I would do above and beyond what I already do for the brand if I did. I don’t want anything else from Pepsi (although I do dig free stuff) either.”

Aye, that seems to be the trouble lots of people were having. Pepsi, unless you take a vote among your friends about their preference (on the level of choosing between strawberry or blackberry jam—tough one—crunchy peanut butter or smooth—totally crunchy) you just don’t have much of a reason to about or to Pepsi.

That is the job of marketers, though, to present a good reason for Pepsi to enter the conversation—hey, here’s a whole article about it—but it does seem a bit trickier when it comes to a classic, iconic brand like this one. It’s probably more complicated than slapping a new look on your can, though that’s a likely first step.

And Coke. . .Coke has something sort of dark-artsy about them, their ubiquitous logo in every nook and cranny, their irresistible merchandising compelling you to buy a clock for your rec room, a polar bear for your daughter. The Coke brand, like the golden arches, with permanent real estate in the consciousness to the point—there’ve been studies—that people choose a brand over taste.

In Japan I could hardly ever find Pepsi, so that’s part of it, lack of ubiquity—no, lack of omnipresence. Another part is that despite that omnipresence Coke doesn’t come across as gimmicky or flashy in their advertising. They’re kind of existential—30 seconds of a fresh-faced girl having her nose tickled by the carbonation, no words just smiles and chuckles. A flash of red and that famous script at the back of a baseball field. 

But still, nobody really talks about it.

So, for what it’s worth, here’s what I would do:

1.    Functional MRIs (fMRI) until Pepsi finds a logo that evokes equal or greater response than Coke’s. (Don’t know if that’s possible but it’s worth a shot, right?)

2.    Put that symbol everywhere, especially super positive places for youth. Associate it with goodness wherever goodness lives. (In Japan, too)

3.    Grab an application designer, have her make something cool, brand it, get it onto iPhone, Facebook, or wherever apps are welcome.

4.    Think Bud, think BK. Masters of the viral. People actually look forward to Budweiser commercials. They talk about them, too. And then want to watch them again. YouTube can be good for that too.

5.    Forget Ludicrous, or 20th Century endorsements, or silly reproductions of 80’s choice of a new generation. Find a hot Internet celeb, put a tight t-shirt on her. (Yeah, kinda sexist, but it works.) Sponsor a vlogger.

6.    Appoint an official blogger. Not a flak, not a suit. A guy at the bottling plant, an intern, a truck driver. But don’t fake it. That’s worse than nothing.

7.    Create a fictional blogger/vlogger character—an obvious creation, not a sneaky one—something artificially intelligent, somebody cool like Max Headroom used to be, only, you know, from this decade.

8.    Pay it forward with good works and brag about your good works.

9.    Merchandise. Cool merchandise. Stuff people want to put up in their house.

10.    Find a way to be existential, something Tao of Pooh, something—doh!—Tao of Pepsi.

If none of that works, bring back the glass bottles. Aluminum nor plastic will ever take the place of the old fashioned glass bottle. Just not as good.

Dig. Where’s my check?