Britney's belly didn't make it to the Big Game, but because she didn't, down in Hattiesburg, Miss., Homes of Hope for Children, Inc. is building a safe haven for kids.
Michael J. Fox didn't star in a Super Bowl spot in 2010. Instead, 14-year-old Jonny Cohen in Highland Park, Ill., is working with his sister to make school buses more energy efficient.
Cindy Crawford didn't strut her stuff across the small screen for the soda maker this time around. This means that in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Hillcrest High School can create a virtual computer lab for its students.
When PepsiCo pulled out of the Super Bowl ad lineup after more than two decades of spectacular television commercials, opting to instead use the $20 million for a social media marketing campaign, the press went out of their minds, the industry was intrigued and so much heat was generated by the announcement that it was anointed one of the Top Ten News Stories of 2010 by Advertising Age.
But the Pepsi Refresh Project turned out to be much more: a primer on how to use social media circa 2010 and a trailblazing integrated effort that included novel new partnerships among Pepsi's media partners. It broke new ground on how to combine traditional media with emerging channels.
Even more dramatic was the program's ability to harness the pull-not-push power of a consumer-empowered digital ecosystem to create thousands, perhaps millions of evangelists. It's "doing well by doing good" on a massive scale.
Pepsi not advertising in the Super Bowl is a really big story. But the Pepsi Refresh Project is revolutionary. The marketer got out in front of the social media bonanza with an innovative campaign and leveraged it beautifully - and continues to iterate the program in all sorts of new directions, not the least of which are potential new business models for Madison Avenue.
And that's why the soda maker is MEDIA Magazine's 2010 Media Client of the Year.
Early and Often
If there's one thing we've learned from being knocked around in the ferocious currents of the digital age, particularly its social media manifestations, it's that everybody has an opinion and no one is shy about giving it. Many marketers have tapped into that pull-not-push zeitgeist. But the Refresh Project tied this uniquely "now" trend to another high-profile aspect of current culture: making a difference.
"The genesis of the program came from some core consumer insights, the most important being that given the state of the economy, people were more open to social-good programs," recalls Seth Kaufman, Pepsi's director of media strategy and investment while the Refresh Project was incubating and now vice president/general manager of the Pepsi-Starbucks North American Coffee Partnership. "Rather than winning money or giving to charity, people wanted to do stuff themselves. They could play a role in moving society ahead."
Pepsi gave people two ways to do that: nominate your own community-building idea or vote for those you like. Consumers nominate ideas for Pepsi Refresh grants each month at refresheverything.com, and visitors to the site vote on what they think are the best ideas of the month. If the nominees meet the company's guidelines, they win grants of $5,000 to $250,000.
As the Refresh Project polished off its first year in December, the tallies, per Pepsi, were staggering:
- More than 60 million votes cast (Pepsi will be proud to tell you that number is more than the total votes cast in the 2008 Presidential election);
- The site attracted in excess of 17 million unique visitors;
- More than 1.6 million comments posted;
- 350 projects awarded a total of $14.6 million, including 54 schools, 26 parks or playgrounds, 10 children's homes and six community centers, and a small and growing army of individuals.
The Pepsi Refresh Project galvanized whole areas of the country. Just take a peek at this breathless account of the $575,000 in grant money awarded to projects in its area from a September story that appeared in the Albany, N.Y.-based Times Union:
"At Cohoes Music Hall, 40 kids sat at tables, telethon-style, with their phones and laptops, texting, emailing and sending Facebook notes to all their friends encouraging them to vote.
"At University at Albany, Siena College and other schools and businesses, including one in Australia, officials sent blast emails urging students, alumni, teachers and employees to vote.
"Meanwhile, folks like Ed Sames, Jim Charles and Tony Rivera passed out flyers outside Price Chopper and attended Boy and Girl Scout and PTA meetings - all in an effect to get out the vote [sic]."
And how many national campaigns have you seen where cities brag about how involved they are in your branding efforts? In the story, the Times Union crowed that "if you look at a map of grant winners, you see that the Capital Region compares favorably to New York City but far exceeds Boston, Hartford, Philadelphia and Baltimore."
New and Improved
Beyond evidence demonstrating the huge amount of goodwill generated by the program are the fascinating signals it sends to the media industry itself. At a MediaPost Social Insider Summit in 2010, Shiv Singh, director of digital for PepsiCo Beverages America, presented some of the program's results and noted that the initiative is "turning the economics of media upside down" because the program Web site generates more traffic than sites he buys for the Pepsi brands.
And it isn't slowing down: even a year later, Singh notes, "refresheverything.com gets more traffic than GQ does online."
Traditional media were used fairly widely to promote the Project, and although the advertiser won't reveal exact ad spend, it's likely that brand Pepsi's 2009 spend of around $135 million was exceeded last year, in large part due to the Refresh Project. But the campaign also contained some inventive new elements, Kaufman says.
The Pepsi Refresh Project partnered with NBC Universal, MTV Networks, AOL, Facebook, Parade, Yahoo and others, but "we looked at media completely differently," he explains. "A lot of companies, including us, have done big partnerships in the past. It was pick the partner, do an integration, have a big program. What uniquely we required [was that] everyone, regardless of size, be a real partner, not just sell us inventory..."
So MTV produced content using MTV talent and filmed Pepsi Refresh stories. Rather than buy banner ads, seed.com gave its 5,000 journalists around the country Pepsi Refresh assignments.
Sure, stuff like that is done all the time, but as an adjunct, not as the core activity of the initiative. Throughout the Pepsi Refresh Project, in fact, everybody was doing something. Nobody was just pitching, or selling, or consuming.
Speaking of which, there was one very traditional Pepsi element to the campaign: celebrities. John Legend did a YouTube video urging voters to tap his favorite music teaching program, and Drew Brees did the same for relief from the Gulf's oil spill.
The Pepsi Refresh Project has even had a halo effect on how Pepsi and its media agency, OMD, measure results. At a Mediapost Social Insider Summit last year, Shiv Singh talked about a new way of looking at metrics he called the "Impressions Plus" model, which grew out of Pepsi's experience during the Refresh campaign, and calculates the value of a media buy on the conventional media impressions plus social media pass-along.
"Our initial plans for 2011 all utilize this model," notes Erin Matts, OMD group director of strategy, digital. "Capturing this in our analytics dashboards, I think, would be critical to understanding the value of those partnerships and what role a particular site, blog or environment plays in different kinds of campaigns."
Taking the Tally
For society, building a better world is vital. Business success, alas, is measured with far less (or any) sentiment. And the question - asked almost from the very first Pepsi Refresh Project presser - was and is: did the Pepsi Refresh Project work?
It worked like gangbusters from a PR and relationship-building standpoint. Local media like the Albany Daily gushed about the program and got behind it. ABC aired almost 40 local segments highlighting 2010's winners. Bottlers threw picnics for grant winners. The program totaled more than 2.8 billion impressions from earned media through the middle of the fourth quarter. There were more than 1,500 blog posts and 167,000 tweets about the program.
In terms of sales, not so much yet. Pepsi's share actually declined in the first nine months versus Coca-Cola, per Beverage Digest. But that really wasn't the point of the effort. Relationship building was, and by any reasonable analysis, Pepsi triumphed with this campaign.
"Marketers and people in the media are used to thinking of advertising as driving volume," says Singh, "but this is lifetime brand equity and loyalty. This will make people brand loyalists for Pepsi for their lifetime."
And in terms of creating intriguing new models of activating and measuring media campaigns, the Pepsi Refresh Project most definitely made a difference.
In fact, "whether it worked or not is not even that important," claims Josh Levine, CEO of LA-based social media marketing consultancy Rebel Industries. "The most interesting thing about this program is that Pepsi is doing it--that a marketer of that size has jumped into the space so thoroughly."
A Better World, a Bigger Program
Next month, Pepsi returns to the Super Bowl. But the Pepsi Refresh Project lives on, breaking new ground, giving out $1.3 million in grants every month and finding new causes to support. In 2011, the program goes international as well.
"I do think that the intersection of cause marketing and brand marketing thanks to social media [is] something everyone will be a part of," concludes Singh. "Consumers like brands that make a difference in the world." No doubt students at a certain high school in Idaho, the kids in a home in Hattiesburg and a teenager in Highland Park would enthusiastically agree.