Pepsi does the electric glide with young voters
In 2007, as the cola wars intensified and consumers kept backing away from carbonated soft drinks, Pepsi-Cola turned its attention to a demographic that still very much cared what it put into its body - young men with a thirst for challenge, competition, camaraderie and carbonation.
Long aligned with gamers - males 12 to 36 who spend more free time playing video games than watching tv - PepsiCo was trying to reach a core consumer base with a shift in generational attitude. No longer a rebellious individualist, the Mountain Dew drinker wanted choice - but within the walls of a community.
Enter WhittmanHart Interactive, based in Chicago. Targeting the Millennials (ages 18-29), as well as Dew enthusiasts and the aforementioned online gamers, it brought a branded entertainment answer to Pepsi's struggle, creating a mythical world where storytelling and fans' collective power helped to develop the next Mountain Dew.
At the time it launched, it was called Pepsi's "most ambitious foray into the branded-gaming space." Featuring a game narrated by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker - who got involved with writing the game script, assembling the team of graphic artists and directing live-action sequences - and built by WhittmanHart, the campaign asked consumers to decide what a new Mountain Dew soft drink should look like and how it should taste. Heading into an election year, it dubbed the promotion "DEWmocracy."
"Usually, an online campaign is dictated by offline components," says Dana Neujahr, director of client services at WhittmanHart. "We decided to flip the model on its ear and have offline dictated by online."
"Restore the Soul of Mankind"
The effort included a story-based game with a live-action short film. The animated story presented various challenges that gave consumers the tools to develop every aspect of the new drink, including color, flavor and label graphics.
At DEWmocracy.com, registered players were introduced to a virtual world in which each person was asked to join one of three teams. The live-action video posited a world where "creative freedom" and corporate profits rule over all. As the video progressed, the lead actor was positioned as "the chosen one" who would fill a "magic gourd" (i.e., a bottle) to "restore the soul of mankind."
As the game proceeded into the virtual world, participants moved into different chambers where they selected their preferred flavor, color and marketing characteristics. The gamers were then combined into three teams to lobby for their candidate in the real world. Official voting was originally scheduled to take place in February, with the new product launching sometime thereafter.
Response was so enthusiastic (the site had 700,000 reported unique visits and 200,000 registered users), WhittmanHart suggested Pepsi release the top three flavors - Revolution, Supernova and Voltage - to the public in January, and "the campaigning began," Neujahr says. That included viral graphic assets on Facebook and MySpace pages, and live-tracking implementation so consumers could follow the voting state-by-state.
The effort made an impression on its intended targets, specifically male tweens and teens, who "responded immediately," according to Paige Newman, editor of Zandl Group's Hot Sheet, an on-going trend report that tracks tweens, teens and young adults. "They were eager to try the new flavors," she says, adding that Mountain Dew ranked No. 1 on tweens' list of "Newest Beverages" they had tried and No. 2 among teens for that category.
"They also flocked to the message boards to offer support for their favorite 'candidates,' " Newman says. "Kudos to Pepsi for understanding that this was an election year with unparalleled interest and involvement by Millennials, and for giving them a forum to let their voices and opinions be heard."
Shock the Vote
Pepsi hyped the DEWmocracy game, mostly through online sources, with a 30-second tv spot that ran on cable channels like Spike and wild postings in several major cities. After several months of campaigning, voting took place in July and August, with the winner, Voltage, announced shortly thereafter. The new drink was released to the public in November.
At that time, Pepsi gave its bottlers point-of-sale materials to drive consumers to a renamed Web site, dewmocracyvoltage.com, to continue to cultivate dialogue, says Marc Hanson, marketing manager for Mountain Dew. The company also provided in-store signage and romance copy on the package's side panel, and launched radio ads in local bottlers' markets skewed to teen and young-adult listeners.
Pepsi also debuted a 30-second tv spot that drove traffic to the Web site on Fox and on Millennial-skewing cable networks in which three teens sit in a park at night, swilling Mountain Dew. Their shirts become electric, generating the kind of buzz one hears from electric bug zappers. We hear the whining of mosquitoes as they swat at them, but suddenly a gigantic skeeter comes barreling toward one of the guys. Splat! Bug juice sprays everywhere.
Hanson says the new site has retained 325,000 registered users, who are participating in various ways. "They have a stake in the success of the brand," he notes, and now they can earn points by helping to spread the word. The promotion's prizes include Mountain Dew gear and Xbox game consoles.
"Voltage was born out of consumer participation, so everything we're doing is about maintaining that dialogue into the future," Hanson says. "It's important to Mountain Dew to target those consumers. It's central to what we're doing in all our marketing communications. Voltage and DEWmocracy went there in a big way, and we want to maintain the community and reach out to them in additional ways in the future."
In the carbonated soft drink category, Mountain Dew "significantly outperformed" its competitors in 2008, reports John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest. In general, the brand's sales at retail were down just 1.6 percent against a category that saw sales down 4.7 percent, he says. Diet Mountain Dew was up 3.7 percent and both brands gained 0.2 market share.
Sicher credited the gains to "continued focus from Pepsi and continued good execution by the bottlers. The brand did well last year, relatively, as it has in previous years. It is consistently one of the stronger top brands in category."
WhittmanHart's Neujahr says the campaign's greatest success was the community that was created around it. Over an eight- to 10-week period, she says, it generated 3,500 threads on a generic message board on the DEWmocracy Web site, as gamers raced to solve challenges and post the solutions. "They became chamber guides, and if they were even five minutes late in posting, there would be people on there begging them to post the answers so they could move to the next chamber."
Neujahr says that in eight years in the
interactive biz, this is the first time she's seen it launch a brand's line extension: "A new drink completely conceived of by consumers? Ideas for new products usually start in the hallways of the
brand marketing team and the client. We put creation back into the hands of consumers."