Why I Think Pepsi Refresh Needed the Super Bowl

Ad Age Editor in Chief Weighs in on Bottler's Social Initiative

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain
Samsung Electronics wants to more than double its sales, and it won't get there by making better products.

Consumers make purchases not because Samsung or anybody else makes the best product, but because the brand has "deeper social and cultural meaning," according to Ralph Santana, senior VP and CMO of Samsung Electronics North America.

But, he told the Association of National Advertisers conference in Orlando, just knowing your space "within culture and consciously behaving along this paradigm is not enough to ensure success."

Mr. Santana said the key is to have a brand idea that has a "mass sensibility" to it. "And then you need to scale your message and make sure that the idea is getting enough exposure to be successful."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country in San Francisco, a PepsiCo exec was saying much the same thing about the need to bond with the consumer. "Society is moving fast, and we have to move faster. We as organizations have to move from impressions to connections," said B. Bonin Bough, global director of digital and social media at PepsiCo.

And, he said, referring to Pepsi Refresh, the much-ballyhooed program that awards grants for civic and social programs, "As an organization, when we announced it, everybody at this town hall hugged each other, loved each other. ... Everyone from the CEO down was laser-focused on getting the thing right," Mr. Bonin told the Direct Marketing Association's annual conference.

He added that Pepsi Refresh is now going global and that it will be back in the U.S. in 2011. So far 46 million votes have been cast for projects to donate money to.

Back in Orlando, Mr. Santana, a 16-year Pepsi veteran, elaborated on the Pepsi Refresh project. "We had a genuine story to tell, we were right on point with an insight about empowering consumers and enabling meaningful change. We had a culturally relevant idea that tapped into a mass sensibility, and we were authentic and transparent about what the Refresh Project was trying to accomplish."

But it is yet to get most consumers involved. Pepsi got the 1% of influencers, the 9% of the participators, "but what we learned was that the predominant use of social media and narrow-casting tactics missed the masses -- and Pepsi is about as mass as a brand can be.

"So the key learning for us was that in addition to having a cultural idea that taps into a mass sensibility, you need to make sure that your idea is getting enough exposure to be successful."

So I submit that Pepsi might well have built a tipping point sooner if it hadn't skipped the Super Bowl. "We had the correct insights," Mr. Santana said, "but we didn't reach the tipping point of the masses." Pepsi has diverted as much as one-third of its marketing budget to Refresh.

(Pepsi, for its part, said Mr. Santana's remarks were incorrect. In a statement, the company said, "The Pepsi Refresh Project was launched as a 360-degree marketing campaign, including: targeted influencer outreach, celebrity involvement, sports sponsorship activation, employee, bottler and customer engagement, substantial public relations activities and -- as widely reported -- a significant mass multimedia investment to coincide with the program launch on Feb. 1. The Pepsi Refresh Project far surpassed consumer engagement and awareness expectations and industry benchmarks within the first several months of the campaign.")

Whether or not Mr. Santana is right that Project Refresh was slow to reach its tipping point or Pepsi is right that the campaign is wildly successful, the bigger question is whether any marketer should put all its eggs in the do-good basket. It's risky to build your entire campaign around a cause that doesn't give any tangible reasons for consuming your product.

There's also the danger that consumers could conceivably tire of causes or decide that Pepsi, a marketer long known for its ability to amuse and entertain, is taking itself too seriously. After all, we're talking about fizzy soda water here.

All said, it hasn't been very successful in the new campaign department lately, and Coca-Cola has done a good job of leveraging its "Open Happiness" campaign in a myriad of ways around the world. PepsiCo has announced it is buying time on the Super Bowl next year, so it could bring the Refresh Project to more of the masses–though it has said the buy is for Pepsi Max.

Mr. Santana, in his ANA speech, said mass brands "are having a tougher and tougher time predictably connecting with consumers." One reason, he explained, is that we're seeing "an increase in the distrust of institutions. Consumers are splintering off into micro-communities, and with endless content consumers are adopting an ADD-like mentality, moving from one thing to the next to the next."

Mr. Santana said the next frontier for marketers is "culture-casting," which means infusing cultural meaning into brands and reaching the masses within a specific cultural context.

Thereby, Samsung's objective, he said, is to identify the right culture space for its brand and develop a singular idea that "embodies the brand and resonates with that space."

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