Industry Watch: The Soft Economy
Soda pops offer a fizzy social experience
Back when tweens and teens and twenty-somethings wore poodle skirts and white socks with black penny loafers, the social hot spot was the local soda shop. And as all trends do, this one is coming around again - this time in digital form - as leading soft drink manufacturers attempt to turn their Web sites into popular social hangouts.
Pepsi.com offers a busy social experience. Download songs by the Davids (Cook and Archuletta) and others by entering a code from your bottle cap. Watch scenes from the latest episodes of Gossip Girl or The Hills via Amazon video. View clips of Jeff Gordon at the Pepsi 500 Nascar race, or check out the company's latest TV commercials, play games, enter contests - even build a Pepsi can and enter it in a contest to be considered for the 2009 Pepsi lineup. You can find their "Bob's House" Super Bowl commercial and others through YouTube. Pepsi makes an effort to spread its message around; some of the content is on the site, while some links to branded sections of other sites, such as Yahoo Music.
"We started with the notion of viral, which turned into social," explains John Vail, director of interactive marketing at PepsiCo. "First, we did promotions online, and then with the Super Bowl, we let people weigh in and vote; now we're letting people create the new Mountain Dew. It's a combination of pushing out and having a two-way dialogue." Pepsi also has a Facebook page with 595,000 friends, according to comScore senior analyst Andrew Lipsman.
Coca-cola.com uses similar tactics, including music, sports, TV commercials and a design-your-own-Coke-bottle contest to attract and engage customers. On the surface, Coca-Cola appears to offer less, but it provides a truer social experience.
For instance, from its European soccer page, visitors can instant message other soccer fans and trade virtual player cards. IMers can also download customized Coke tags for their IM screens. And members of mycokerewards.com - all 4.6 million of them, according to comScore - can send a postcard to troops overseas.
"Social media is one of the things we're actively working on," says Robert Stone, director of interactive and emerging media for Dr Pepper Snapple Group, who, coincidentally, was planning to interview a social media agency the day we spoke.
DPSG's first foray into social media was a partnership with grad student and Internet phenom Tay Zonday. They hired him to create an original version of his song "Chocolate Rain" called "Cherry Chocolate Rain" to promote Diet Cherry Chocolate Dr Pepper. With more than 6.1 million views, Stone says the viral video "blew away our expectations."
They had similar success with a project for Snapple Antioxidant Water. A song written by hired session musicians The Bad Eliots to accompany the "Bubble Wrap World" video has been so heavily requested that the band has since built a Web site and DPSG is now "looking at different ways we can leverage that," Stone says.
Need a Friend, Little Guy?
Social media is not simply a tactic reserved for the top three cola makers. Smaller, scrappier companies such as Seattle, Wash.-based bottler Jones Cola - whose tagline is "Run with the little guy ... create some change" - thrives on social and community efforts to keep its niche brand alive.
"Jones Soda has always been about the people and interacting with the consumer," the Web site says. "Jones Soda has created a cult following and is a passion not only among soda drinkers but with its employees, directors and shareholders."
Jones runs a perpetual photo contest to put cool new images on its bottles, and some say Jones was doing the design-your-own thing long before Coke or Pepsi. Quirky customer comments that often have nothing to do with soda - such as "I don't get football. Everyone is always yelling, Run! Run! And I'm like, they're all running! From Danielle in Lehi" - run along the top of the Web site and give the site a youthful and somewhat rebellious edge. The left side of jonessoda.com is filled with photos of customers skateboarding, dirt-biking, snowboarding and general all-around partying. To keep people coming back, jonessoda.com has plenty of quizzes, contests, games, videos and music downloads.
In June, Jones launched the ultimate interaction device - a limited edition series of political candidate-inspired colas - Hillary Clinton's "Capital Hillary Cola," John McCain's "Pure McCain Cola" or Barack Obama's "Yes We Can Cola." The program "provided a unique forum for those who are under 18 years of age to vote for their candidate of choice and encourages participants to take a stance on today's political issues," the company said. (Fun fact: Before the election, sales of Barack Obama's cola were double that of John McCain's.)
How can soft drink companies take social media efforts to the next level?
"Most of what's been done so far has been branding efforts," says Dr. Augustine Fou, senior vice president and digital strategist at MRM Worldwide. Also, he says, a lot of the interactivity is the same old, same old: games, contests, downloads, yada yada yada. "The next wave needs to figure out how to move the needle on sales. People are earning currency and value in virtual worlds. Wouldn't it be nice if they could turn that currency into a brand purchase in the real world?"
Also, Fou says, voting is way overused, and consumers will eventually get tired of voting on everything. What's next? He suggests that social media efforts should take a lesson from interesting software tools like Predictify. "Basically, you write your own question. Then, when people come in and make a prediction, they get more points if they predict much earlier - i.e., predicting who's going to win the presidency six months ago rather than a week before the election. So they earn a reputation among their group for making the most predictions and the most correct predictions. This earns them a great reputation, and reputation is one of the key currencies of social networks," Fou says.
In addition, social media provides great opportunities for sampling, he says. "Sampling response rates have historically been dismal, but if a friend knows you like a certain type of product, and they send you a sample, you're going to be more likely to try it because it comes from a trusted friend."
Results of a comScore study also point toward opportunities for more embedded advertising. Last year, comScore asked people about their receptivity to ad messages in user-generated content or on social media sites. "The younger they were, the more receptive they were to advertising on those sites," Lipsman says. "But the highest receptivity was for fun categories, including food and beverage brands," which he says suggests that social media would be a natural ad vehicle for soft drinks. After all, fun is fun, but in the end, it's all about selling soda.