Why Pepsi's NFL Strategy Skewed Digital This Fall

Brand Eschewed TV for Online Videos

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Even though Pepsi is the official soft drink of the National Football League, the brand has been noticeably absent during the games' TV commercial breaks this year.

But it's not because PepsiCo has turned its back on the league. Rather, Pepsi has chosen to embark on a digital-centric strategy this fall, spending almost all of its football marketing dollars on online videos starring NFL players. That will change soon, as Pepsi begins airing TV ads leading up to its heavily promoted sponsorship of the Super Bowl halftime show.

But for the the first half of the season, brand leaders decided digital was more efficient and effective. "As we've studied consumers media consumption behaviors around the NFL, we've seen a lot more engagement online as [fans] research players or teams for updates through the first part of the season," said Amy Spiridakis, Pepsi's brand marketing director. "As the season is now winding down, gearing up towards the playoffs, you'll see in the next couple weeks [that] we [will] shift directions a little bit."

She declined to comment on the specifics of the upcoming TV campaign. Last season, the brand began airing halftime-themed ads during the playoffs, leading up to the Super Bowl halftime show starring Bruno Mars. Katy Perry is expected to star in this season's show, according to various media reports, although Pepsi and the NFL have yet to confirm the performer.

Pepsi last year put a lot more TV weight at the beginning of the year, led by a one spot that asked viewers, "Are you fan enough?"

This year's digital campaign, called "All for Football," has featured videos of NFL players Andy Dalton, Matt Stafford and Nick Mangold making surprise appearances at Pepsi retailers.

The latest ad (above), which breaks Wednesday, features Drew Brees, who guides shoppers wearing a Pepsi "smart helmet" through an obstacle course erected in a Walmart parking lot in New Orleans. Earlier videos were set in a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant, a Hess convenience store and a Meijer grocery store. The Marketing Arm handled the Buffalo Wild Wings spot, while Mekanism was the agency for the other three.

While its retail partners get valuable exposure, Pepsi paid for the ads. "We've really been looking for how we can change our activation model with partners," Ms. Spiridakis said. "We see this as really offering those partners value through both media and content, while it simultaneously builds both our brand as well as that of our partner."

In the Buffalo Wild Wings ad, for instance, Andy Dalton is seen conducting a news conference on a video screen inside a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant. PepsiCo replaced Coca-Cola in 2013 as the beverage supplier to Buffalo Wild Wings in a deal that called for "joint marketing initiatives tied to sports and entertainment."

Pepsi has supported the ads with promoted social media posts, as well as pre-roll digital video ad buys. The only TV buy is on the NFL Network.

The three previously released spots have drawn a combined 2.5 million Youtube views. That falls short of the views generated by some of Pepsi's recent viral video hits. For instance, last year an "Uncle Drew" ad for Pepsi Max -- which starred NBA star Kyrie Irving -- drew more than 4 million views in a single week, according to the Ad Age Viral Video Chart.

But Ms. Spiridakis said the Youtube counts do not include views imbedded inside social media posts. According to Pepsi, the three videos have generated more than 4 million views when social media is included. "We've been extremely pleased with this campaign to date," Ms. Spiridakis said.

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