PepsiCo's Sierra Mist will debut a 30-episode animated web series, "On the Bubble News," tomorrow at Comic-Con, the pop-culture-nerd prom that occurs annually in San Diego. But while Sierra Mist wrote all the checks, the brand is almost nowhere to be found in the show.
"Branded entertainment has gotten dated," said Claudia Cahill, exec VP-corporate development at Medium, a content-development company that produced the series.
"It's not about 'insert brand here.' The brand's role has to have a reason. These guys have embraced that." (Not that Sierra Mist hasn't embraced traditional product integration this summer.)
Likewise, visitors to onthebubblenews.com won't find any mention of Sierra Mist, nor will those who view it on YouTube or MySpace or any of the other social-media sites on which it's being seeded. The brand doesn't appear in the storyline until the ninth episode, and then only fleetingly.
The brainchild of Comedy Central writer Adam de la Pena ("The Man Show," "Crank Yankers"), "On the Bubble" is an animated newscast put on by group of fictional cash-strapped 20-something students in a dorm room at the equally fictional Middle Town Community College. Think of it as "The Daily Show" staffed by grown-up versions of "South Park" denizens like Kenny and Cartman.
"Brand marketing is evolving," said Ron Pence, Sierra Mist's senior brand manager. "It's not about [building] brand space and hoping they'll buy in. It's about having a relationship with those customers, making them laugh."
Linked to comedy clubs
Medium is owned by Los Angeles-based Levity, the largest booker of talent for the Improv chain of comedy clubs, which had already been consulting for Pepsi for the last five years, Mr. Pence said. The relationship with the booking firm's newest content venture, Medium, was a natural outgrowth, he said.
But why a fake, animated newscast?
Fake news attracts real -- and media-savvy -- consumers: An April 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found those who seemed to know the most about current events were likely to be viewers of satirical newscasts such as Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" and Stephen Colbert's "The Colbert Report"; those who knew the least watched network morning news programs or local TV news. And the former group is the Sierra Mist demographic.
Pepsi's internal research about 20-somethings' use of media mirrored that. Said Ms. Cahill, "The [actual] news for them is a turn-off." Added Mr. Pence: "We know they are info-snacking."
(Oddly enough, news also broke this week in the Las Vegas Sun that McDonald's Corp. had paid the Las Vegas Fox affiliate, KVVU, to place two logo-emblazoned plastic cups filled with fake coffee on its local morning news show's anchor desk, though the anchors aren't supposed to acknowledge the products.)
Of course, that the headlines these days are largely about the souring economy and the war in Iraq might have quenched any desire on the part of super-sweet Sierra Mist to do the show, but Ms. Cahill insisted its focus is comedic, never dire.
"We haven't gone there yet," she said of Iraq, "but the writers have tried to pick up on political stuff. There's an interview conducted with [a Sen. Barack] Obama quote generator. ... That's about as serious as we get."
To launch the web series, Sierra Mist also drew expertise from digital agency Tribal DDB, and digital strategy company Undercurrent.
There's plenty of room for growth: Of last year's 10 best-selling sodas, the only lemon-lime pop in the ranks was Coca-Cola's Sprite, accounting for 5.6% of the American soda market, according to industry trade publication Beverage Digest; neither Sierra Mist nor 7-Up managed to crack the top 10.