For PepsiCo, selling soda at the movies is no longer good enough—it wants to be a star on the big screen.
In a bold entertainment marketing bet, the marketer plans to create a full-length feature film based on a Pepsi ad character: Uncle Drew, the elderly, pot-bellied, basketball-loving man played by NBA star Kyrie Irving, who has played the part in popular online videos since breaking through in 2012.
Making viral videos is one thing, but making a movie based on an ad carries greater risk, not least because of the investment involved. It's been done before, perhaps most notably in the 1990s when Warner Bros. turned the Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny ads from Wieden & Kennedy into "Space Jam." But Nike was not involved in the movie because the marketer had reservations about getting into the film business.
PepsiCo, on the other hand, is deeply involved with "Uncle Drew," which is targeting wide release in theaters. The project is led by PepsiCo's Creators League unit, formed last year to serve as an internal production arm for scripted series, films, music recordings, reality shows and other content distributed for TV, online viewing and theaters. For "Uncle Drew," the Creators League is partnering with Temple Hill Entertainment, a West Hollywood production company whose credits include the 2008 fantasy vampire hit "Twilight." The movie is in its early stages, with no target release date announced.
PepsiCo's vision for Creators League goes way beyond product marketing. The unit makes some branded content, such as the Pepsi-branded Tony Bennett lead-in to this year's Pepsi-sponsored Super Bowl halftime show starring Lady Gaga. But it also makes unbranded content. Executives envision a virtuous cycle: Make money from non-branded output to cover the costs of creating more product-focused ad content. Some of the results—like "Uncle Drew"—will be based on PepsiCo's ad stars.
"When we look across the PepsiCo brand portfolio there are equities and intellectual properties that we own and that we know are consumer-loved that we think are ripe for entertainment," said Kristin Patrick, senior VP-global brand development, who oversees Creators League's studio with Brad Jakeman, president of PepsiCo's global beverage group. "Uncle Drew happens to be one of those, and there are a few others within our portfolio that we are taking a look at as well." That includes the Cheetos mascot Chester Cheetah, whom Ms. Patrick described as a "cross between the Most Interesting Man in the World and the Pink Panther."
Of course, taking an ad star to the big screen poses some hazards. What if "Uncle Drew" bombs? If "no one wants to go see it, and it starts getting negative reviews, what will be the impact on the brand?" asked Jared Weiss, co-founder of Starpower, an entertainment marketing agency that does not work for PepsiCo. "Especially from a social media standpoint, do they start weathering that sort of thing?" But, Mr. Weiss added, "I still think the upside is much bigger than the downside."
'Eating my words'
He likened Pepsi's move to what is occurring in the video game industry, where popular games such as "Angry Birds" and "Assassin's Creed" are being turned into movies. "I think this is a proven model," he said. "The secret to the success is great content."
And in the ad-skipping and ad-blocking era, great content is quickly becoming the only way that brands can get people to pay attention. For today's consumers, "images and associations rule. Associating your brand with a feeling that's elicited from an image or scene, which is part of what's happening [with 'Uncle Drew'], is golden," said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and author of "Decoding the New Consumer Mind."
Still, PepsiCo and other marketers that are moving beyond traditional ads must strike a balance between pure entertainment and marketing. After all, PepsiCo's core business is still selling food and beverages. "The question on the Uncle Drew movie is what is the investment versus the return," Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Ali Dibadj said in an email. "I am very doubtful that PepsiCo will be able to justify producing a feature film to showcase just its own products. Of course, if they create a masterpiece that gets wide distribution, perhaps I'll be eating (or drinking) my words."
Ms. Patrick said brands experimenting with nontraditional entertainment marketing face a measurement conundrum. "There are different ways to do it though impressions, though ROI—meaning on your investment in the content—but also ROI on the products," she said. PepsiCo wants to make money off "Uncle Drew," but also "create a halo around the brand and brand love."
Don't look for Uncle Drew to be plugging Pepsi in every scene. "We absolutely don't want it to feel like an ad where he is taking swigs of our product," Ms. Patrick said. "We want it to be natural and we are being very careful about that."
More on the way
Colleen DeCourcy, global chief creative officer at Wieden & Kennedy, applauded Pepsi's movie ambitions. But she said she expects most brands to stick with short and medium-length branded content to seize on the growing availability of new channels such as Snapchat and Instagram. Movies are a bigger risk, she said, because it is harder to create hits.
At least "Uncle Drew" has a sizable built-in fan base working in its favor. The character's debut in a 2012 web video, in which he starts out slow at an outdoor basketball court but ends up schooling a younger player, amassed 10 million views in less than a month and is now approaching 50 million. Pepsi and Mr. Irving developed it into a franchise with follow-up videos that now live on a portal introduced last week (uncledrew.com) where fans can also buy Uncle Drew merchandise.
PepsiCo's Creators League is further along on another movie project as part of a deal with The Firm, a management and production company, and hip-hop artist Tip "T.I." Harris. Together they are making a coming-of-age feature film that has been described as an urban
The Creators League already has one film completed. The unit worked with MTV and production company Underground on a musical documentary set in Cuba called "Give Me Future," which premiered last month at the Sundance Film Festival. It explored Cuban youth culture while featuring a free concert in Havana by electronic music trio Major Lazer. Pepsi billboards appear in the background of concert scenes, as Variety reported, "but it doesn't push the connection."