Mr. Li’s unlikely path to China’s ad world was the Pepsi Creative Challenge, a contest launched by the beverage marketer last May that underscored the importance of the internet as a marketing device in China, as well as the growth of user-generated content in the mainland, through blogs and other online mechanisms.
The promotion invited consumers to help develop its next TV commercial with Asian superstar Jay Chou by logging on to its micro site (pepsi.163.com) created with Netease, one of China's leading portals.
The site received almost 27,000 scripts over a six-week period through the end of June. The scripts were read and scored by other surfers. Every two weeks, Mr. Chou and a panel of Pepsi executives picked the top five ideas from the 100 highest-scoring entries. To help promote the contest, China’s Back Dorm Boys, a pair of lip-synching “net celebrities” sponsored by Pepsi, acted out some of their favorite scripts in their dorm room. The video clips were posted on pepsi.163.com.
When the competition narrowed to 15 finalists, millions of consumers voted for the final, winning script. In the end, the beloved teacher Mr. Li took home the $12,500 (100,000 RMB) grand prize--more than a teacher in China earns in a year--and the opportunity to participate in production meetings to cast the spots and select props and shoot locations, thanks to widespread buzz generated by his students. His young fans spent their summer vacation from school campaigning for his script online and canvassing city streets on his behalf.
“Much of the internet’s popularity can be attributed to its role as a tool for China’s ‘look at me’ youth to express and show off themselves,” said Chris Pan, Shanghai-based marketing director for Pepsi’s China beverage unit.
In Mr. Li's story, Jay Chou travels back in time and tries to cross a rope drawbridge, but he doesn’t have the two shells required by the primitive people to cross the bridge. He looks through his bag to find something to offer the natives, and ends up pulling out a can of Pepsi to drink. One of the curious natives asks for the Pepsi and then lets Mr. Chou cross the bridge.
The next time, Mr. Chou tries to cross with his girlfriend and is prepared with four shells, but discovers the toll has been raised to a can of Pepsi per person. The hero looks through his bag and finds he only has one can left. The native then points to a nearby stand where they are selling a Pepsi for the inflated price of 50 shells.
In a surprise twist to the contest, Pepsi also held an online audition for consumers to act in the commercial with Jay Chou. That contest was a further revelation about the power of China’s digital lifestyle.
Chengdu-based Guo Guo, who won the female role, learned of the Pepsi Creative Challenge while instant messaging with an online friend from Beijing, whom she had never met in person. After she auditioned by uploading her photos, she told hundreds of her online friends to come vote for her via group instant messages and e-mails. One of those online friends was a boy named Schell from Guangxi, whom she met via blogging but also had never met in person. Initially, he visited the Pepsi site to support Guo Guo, but then decided to audition himself.
“Combined, Guo Guo and Schell’s friends and their friends and their friends’ friends generated hundreds of thousands of votes for them, making them the winner of the online audition,” said Mr. Pan.
China's digital generation is completely at home in the virtual world, making friends, sharing information and playing together through different activities. “The opportunity for marketers is to motivate consumers to share our brand news; the reach and impact could be exponential versus the traditional way of directly bombarding consumers via mass media,” he added.
Guo Guo and Schell, meanwhile, have become close friends and there are hints that they've become a real-life couple. And Mr. Li’s next project? The 28-year-old is using his prize money to get married.