It was recently reported in the trade press that Pepsi had slipped to the #3 soft drink in sales, behind Coke and new #2 Diet Coke. But most interesting was the speculation behind the drop. In an Ad Age article titled “How Pepsi Blinked, Fell Behind Diet Coke”, it was hinted that Pepsi had put too many of its marketing eggs in the social media basket.
Some background: In 2010, the company launched the Pepsi Refresh Project. As I reported in a previous Loyalty Truth post: This Web-based initiative asks customers to submit ideas that they think will have a positive impact on the world, including everything from building community playgrounds to caring for wild cats. Consumers vote on ideas they think should be funded, and to date Pepsi has committed over $15 million to nearly 400 winning ideas.
The Refresh Project was backed by a big social media presence and its launch coincided with Pepsi’s move away from traditional advertising channels, including an ad boycott of the Super Bowl and other major marketing events. (By comparison, Coke is ubiquitous, sponsoring everything from the NCAA tourney to NASCAR to the hit TV show American Idol.)
In the Ad Age article, John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, expressed his concern about Pepsi’s marketing efforts saying, “In the cola wars, the Refresh Project by itself isn’t enough to market Pepsi’s cola brands.” Sicher believes that in addition to Refresh, the company needs “more product-oriented advertising and marketing. I think that the 2010 results are probably a wake-up call for Pepsi.”
In an Ad Age editorial, Rance Crain chimed in “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.”
Julie Rohem, the ex-marketing chief of Wal-Mart, also expressed her doubts about Refresh in a recent blog post:“the message had nearly nothing to do with the product or the sale of that product. It was altruistic and admirable but it did not engage people with the drink itself—only the endeavors that the campaign supported. Pepsi at the end of the day is a mass brand and that means appealing to the masses on the product first.”
So was the Pepsi Refresh Project a mistake? A qualified yes—if the company really thought it could abandon its more traditional advertising efforts for one that pitched good vibes instead of good taste. A message of corporate benevolence is all well and good, but it feels like the company forgot the primary goal of any marketing department: move the product.
That said, Pepsi should also be commended for doing something a lot of bottom line-focused companies have ignored in recent years—giving back to the community. Handing cash to initiatives like “supporting the rescue and care of injured and orphaned wildlife ” and “getting the lowest income students in our community into college” is truly a noble endeavor.
It’s enough to make this bleeding-heart chug a cold bottle of Pepsi or two. If only I drank cola.
Tom Rapsas is a regular contributor to Loyalty Truth. You can follow him on Twitter @tomrapsas