Commentary

I'm Not a Pepper, You're Not a Pepper

Those of us graying at the temples with plummeting metabolisms will recall those dancing, prancing Dr. Pepper spots. David Naughton danced on docks, in malls, across city streets singing unctuously about all of us being “peppers.” We were special people who understood the unique taste of the brand. Here is the original ad. I believe the campaign was successful in reviving a soda brand that until that point was a forgotten relic of a bygone day when non-alcoholic brews like Moxie (which had a lesser renaissance in that period) had their own audiences.

Did any of us who tried Dr. Pepper as a result of this ad actually align ourselves with the surface messaging? Were we really joining a crowd of Peppers? Of course not. Note to marketing: There are no Peppers, there were no Peppers. Cute and talented as Naughton is in ‘70s helmet hairdo, I am not a Pepper, you are not a Pepper, and no one…no one really wanted to be a Pepper too. The key to this ad was a low-level irony that fit its era… of low-level irony. In a mild way, the brand was making fun of brand hubris, and that actually made the brand a bit endearing in an age of disaffection with all corporate authority.

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Time warp to 2007. When I hear about plans like Coke/Sprite’s new branded mobile social network, Sprite Yard, I always imagine the pitch meetings that must have led up to them. It seems like the kind of idea that only delusional brand marketers and key executives in a corporate hierarchy could love. Only Coke could actually believe that people are so wedded to their Sprite brand, that we as consumers have such affection for it, that we would want to live in its world. “Wouldn’t we all like to be LYMONS?” I can hear the pitch going. And who in that room of Coke executives, and marketers beholden to Coke, is going to remind everyone that no one ever was a Pepper and no one wants to be a Lymon? It’s the same weird, pre-digital hubris that led TV networks to think that we really did just spend evenings with CBS and NBC, that consumers are minions who love our brands. Only corporate senior management and their families really “love” the brand, because that brand is responsible for funding their beach house in the Hamptons. I am sure there are a few authoritarian personalities in middle management who feel the same way, but those people also organized high school pep rallies and 1940s Bundt meetings. We don’t talk to them. They scare us.

Which is not to say that the idea of a brand-supported mobile social network is altogether daft. As OnlineMediaDaily reporter Tameka Kee explained today, the Sprint Yard is a social network where people short-code in a PIN number and create profiles and even avatars in a Sprite-sponsored world. Sprite is pretty much creating a media platform that will give away video mobisodes, ringtones and graphics, in addition to a platform for users to connect with one another.

On one level, Sprite is simply following the advice of many interactive marketers who tell brands to offer real value -- not just messaging. In a user-generated media world, the best policy is to give users the assets they like to mash up and share, and build spaces for them to interact with one another. So in some sense, if Sprite Yard seems a bit silly to us, we have only ourselves to blame. We put them up to this.

The early naysayers are pointing to the Bud.tv debacle as evidence that general consumer brands should not aspire to be media companies. But something a bit like Sprite Yard, Wrigley’s CandyStand.com, has succeeded in creating a popular casual interactive games platform for kids around the candy brands. Of course, it isn’t asking users to create avatars and engage in intimate social interaction in the shadow of and in the name of a major manufacturing brand. That might seem a little creepy. Major brands do plaster their names on sports arenas and events, of course, but this is different from actually building a world and expecting people to populate it under the shadow of your brand.

And that is Coke’s real challenge here. We are testing the edges of brand credibility as marketers try to create user-generated platforms. If Sprite Yard is more about free content distribution than social interaction, then it has a chance of success -- but it depends entirely on how much of a media platform it wants to be. The tenth or 20th Lymon wallpaper and Sprite jungle ringtone is going to get old pretty fast. Unless the company really does partner with interesting media figures and assets apart from the Coke brands, then it is just another corporate WAP site giving crap away. But Coke is no MTV. Unless it really is willing and able to offer and promote a wide range of recognizable media, then I don’t see a compelling case for the idea. Trying to create a mobile social universe where users interact with one another on a regular basis seems like the weakest part of this plan. Aligning a corporate manufacturer with personal communications on the most intimate device we have feels like a very hard sell.

Sorry, Virginia, there really are no Peppers, after all.

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