It was a fateful linkup, which, like many flirtations, seemed innocent at the onset. Dr Pepper, a second-tier soda brand with a rep for irreverence, offered a marketing giveaway tied to once-bad-boy Axl Rose's once-great rock band Guns N' Roses. Both had their followers, both were dying for more attention. And they both got it, complete with thwarted fans, a messy breakup and legal threats. Not exactly as planned, but in a twisted way, some say even better.
In March 2008, Dr Pepper and its PR agency, Ketchum, decided to get tighter with its core of young guys by tapping into their fervor for Rose's long-awaited album, Chinese Democracy. To encourage Rose to finish the album - which was already a decade late - they offered a free Dr Pepper to everyone in America if the album was released in 2008. Trying to be cool, Dr Pepper excluded estranged GNR guitarists Slash and Buckethead from the offer.
At the time, parent company Dr Pepper Snapple Group was splitting off from British-owned Cadbury Schweppes, and wanted to make a big brand gesture as a separate entity. Plus, if Dr Pepper had to hand out free sodas, the company figured it could use the process to build its customer database.
"Just a Little Patience"
The offer launched March 26 via a press release and the blog chinesedemocracywhen.blogspot.com. Print, radio, tv and online media lapped it up, starting with an item in the New York Post. You could see the attraction. Reporters calculated a free soda to everyone in the U.S. would cost about $165 million, so the promo seemed like a crazy (read: buzz-worthy) bet. It also riled some fans as a snarky dig at perfectionist Rose by suggesting the odds of his album happening were so remote that a $165 million bet was worth it.
On the GNR Web site the next day, Rose added to the buzz. "We are surprised and very happy to have the support of Dr Pepper with our album. This came totally out of the blue. We are unaware of any involvement with this promotion by our record company. And as some of Buckethead's performances are on our album, I'll share my Dr Pepper with him."
In two weeks, the effort generated more than 300 million impressions and had firmly connected the soda brand with GNR fans, according to Ketchum's new Disruptive Media division, which was handling the campaign. The agency said that the feedback via thousands of blog posts was basically: Who knew that Dr Pepper had a sense of humor?
About a month later, in April, Geffen Records reportedly received a finished copy of the mysterious GNR album. By early summer of 2008, the word on the street and on music blogs was that the album would be released in time for holiday sales. Marketing experts say that's when Ketchum should have been preparing for a possible soda giveaway. Dr Pepper sales were steadily climbing from July through September. By November, bloggers joked about how Axl was going to surprise everyone and the soda company would have to pay up. A tidal wave of fan response was gathering.
On Nov. 20 Chinese Democracy streamed in full on MySpace.com and broke all site records, receiving 25 listens a second for the first 24 hours. By Nov. 21, the album tracks had received more than 3 million plays.
Then on Sunday, Nov. 23, the album was officially released. The buzz machine was poised for action. Tony Jacobs, vice president of marketing at Dr Pepper, released a statement, "We never thought this day would come, but now that it's here: The Dr Pepper's on us."
"Where Do We Go Now?"
But Jacobs and company didn't make it easy. To get their free soda, people had to go to drpepper.com on Nov. 23 and sign up for a coupon that would be mailed to them in 4-6 weeks and had to be redeemed by the end of February. The approach seemed to make marketing sense. Usually only a small percentage of eligible consumers register for coupons and few such coupons typically get redeemed, so the company was collecting valuable email and mailing addresses for the price of a Web site and some free sodas.
The Dr Pepper site was quickly overwhelmed with registrants and shut down. The buzz on the blogosphere began turning ugly.
A common reaction: "Was this [free soda] for every 'person' in America, or every email address? Either way, good luck logging on to the Web site for the coupon. Plus, doing this promotion on Sunday means you can't contact them by phone either. I feel scammed," posted "Disappointed" on the nme music blog
The next day, Jacobs released another statement saying that the response was greater than the company had ever received for a giveaway. He gave people another day to sign up for a soda coupon, beefed up the servers and let people request coupons on the toll-free customer service phone line. But the phone number was often busy and Web site service was still spotty.
"Get in the Ring"
Album promoters saw ways to leverage the free-publicity machine further. About a week after the album hit stores, when sales started to skid, Rose's lawyer, Alan Gutman, sent a letter to Larry Young, ceo of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, claiming the botched soda promotion "ruined" the album's release. Gutman demanded that Dr Pepper pay for the unauthorized use of the Guns N' Roses brand and alleged, "Dr Pepper has now magnified the damage this campaign has caused to our client's rights through its failure to make good on a promise it made to the American public." The letter, which was released to the press, demanded Dr Pepper run a full-page apology in major newspapers and extend a redemption window for its free-soda offer. A Dr Pepper spokesperson publicly responded that the company was "disappointed that GNR's lawyers are turning a fun giveaway into a legal dispute."
In early 2009 the two sides were locked in legal negotiations. A Dr Pepper spokesman would only say, "For us, this was a fun giveaway that has always been about the fans, and we took great steps to fulfill it, including setting up an interactive voice recorder to accept coupon requests. Additionally, in the week after the giveaway, we continued to offer free coupons to those who contacted us to address any problems they may have encountered." Despite the troubles with GNR, Dr Pepper hasn't given up on giveaways as an efficient marketing tool - and a way to cull customer data. In a late January offer, consumers could be one of the first two million to register to receive a coupon for a free Diet Dr Pepper at freedietdrpepper.com
Most marketing experts say Dr Pepper's association with GNR was smart, but the soda marketer misunderstood Rose and the devotion of his following. They say the primary problem was not the overloaded Web servers, but treating the giveaway as a data collection tool and making the promised soda difficult to obtain. Ironically, the hurdles made miffed Rose fans even more determined, driving up the interest level and response rate, which led to the overload. People's anger at the failed process drove buzz further, and brought the band and its fans together against the soda brand.
"Instead of setting themselves up as a facilitator [to celebrate the album] with free soda, the company set itself up as a gatekeeper, which just pissed people off," says Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys. "Amazon, eBay and the social networks all will tell you that ease of use is the price of entry to reach young consumers." To ask fans to wait 4-6 weeks for their soda is also "contrary to the millions of dollars in Dr Pepper advertising over the years which hyped the instant gratification of fizzy bubbles," notes Julie Robertson, strategist at marketing agency Ignited.
In a way, the promotion was too good of an idea for an old-guard marketer to handle, say digital pros. The way the GNR fans were treated might have made sense in the conference room, but ended up "prompting brand disengagement, which no company wants," says Passikoff.
"That the servers crashed is further testament to the stunt's success," counters Peter Blackshaw, executive vice president at Nielsen Digital Strategic Services. GNR's legal demands were another "fortunate wrinkle" that extended the news value and gave Dr Pepper another chance to have a public conversation with the band.
Dr Pepper has pulled off one of the best pr stunts of the decade, says Drew Neisser, ceo of marketing agency Renegade. "The soda brand cleverly inserted itself into a bit of pop culture history, and generated more than eight months of substantial press coverage that is consistent with the brand persona."