Pepsi and a Thought About Cause Marketing, Authenticity and Commonality

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Yesterday we discussed Amazon and the challenge intangibles and digital products have with perceived value. I must say, the comments yesterday were rich and deep, and it’s really got me thinking. I’ll be picking up this theme again very soon – if you haven’t said a word there yet, please do leave a comment on what others have said.

Today we’ll look at the second case study, namely Pepsi’s decision to invest it’s $20 million Super Bowl spend rather into Social Media. As I said yesterday, I’d certainly recommend reading both ABC News’ article and Augie Ray’s article at the Forrester Marketing blog, as they both provide excellent analysis and further examples of other companies doing similar things. I don’t actually want to talk about Social Media here though, as they haven’t started the campaign yet – I actually want to focus on Cause Marketing, Authenticity, and, well, you can read the title!

Case 2:  What Is A Cause?

According to ABC News, “The Pepsi Refresh Project will launch on Jan. 13 with a Web site where people can outline their projects to refresh their communities to make a better world.” They continue, “Visitors to the site can start voting on Feb. 1. Pepsi estimates they will fund thousands of projects spending in excess of $20 million dollars and hopes to start a movement where others will begin funding community projects in the same manner.”

So what Pepsi are doing, from what I can see here, is not putting all of their redirected Super Bowl funds into Social Media. No doubt a lot has gone into the build, and a lot will go into the management, but the primary use of the $20 is to fund local community projects.

This idea of marketing through social change, cause and community is this Cause Marketing concept that I want to investigate. Whilst the idea of a ’cause marketing’ was identified in the 1970 as a more clearly defined non-profit and charitable cause, it has morphed into becoming a moniker for any gathering of community around a mutual passion or pain, where a platform is built for people to unite and thereby the product is seen as either the platform itself, or the facilitator.

To paint a picture, I think one of the best examples of cause marketing is the numerous ways that Churches today evangelise – by cleaning lawns, helping the poor, building up broken buildings, raising money. On the top level, Churches carry out these activities as a way to market themselves. By carrying out these activities, they show (market) to the onlookers that they care, that they are actively involved in the community, and that they are culturally relevant.

The second level of marketing is more subtle – by actually involving people in the activities, you market to them by providing a platform for them to fulfil their passion or elevate their pain. The aim is to move them towards brand advocacy – participation sweetens loyalty. If I’ve worked with you, with sweat, blood and tears, then I’m not likely to criticise you, am I? On the other hand, I’ll stand by what we’ve done together.

The keen, regular readers (hey guys, how are you?) will know that I’ve actually been doing this for years – most recently with Like Minds. By building a platform for people’s passions and pains I’ve marketed my consultancy, my Agency and my thought leadership, not to mention Like Minds itself. Whether people paid to come, or really got stuck in and helped out, I marketed to them all. It’s important to point out that this isn’t deception – you really are helping people, and providing them with what they want. I love nothing more than to work side by side with people, innovating and pioneering new things – I’ve just learned over the years how to do this better. The more pertinent question, rather than if all this is deception, is whether this is authentic.

What is Authenticity?

The thing is, when I look at Pepsi’s plans, I see a fundamental difference from my examples above. In the above instances, the platform is the product. But what in the world has Pepsi got to do with social change? That’s where the issue with authenticity comes in. I see it, currently, in two lights. Either:

  1. The platform is the product, which means there aren’t strong authenticity issues – because you are being what you are, or
  2. The platform is not the product, in which case, there are strong authenticity issues – because you are not being what you are.

I recently met a hero in the form of Joe Pine whilst he was in London. Joe’s book Authenticity (affiliate link) looks at some of these issues, but at the lecture he was giving that I attended, he touched on a very interesting thought I had forgotten. He suggested that in an Experience Economy, businesses face the issue of authenticity with regards to the experience that they deliver. Therefore, he went on to say, businesses need to begin rendering authenticity, in the same way that a service industry improves quality, or a good industry controls cost.

Now I know that’s a deep paragraph, and it would take a lot to explain – so I do suggest you read the book. But in a nutshell, Joe is getting at this idea of authenticity being a case of rendering said authenticity in the right light. How do you convey the right level of authenticity? Consider the whole ‘transparency’ debate – just how transparent do you want us to be? There will always be selectivity – not because I’m hiding from you, but I’m protecting you. You don’t really want to hear my toilet habits, do you? But you do want to hear my daily productivity habits. That’s selectivity. Furthermore, consider that no one is really authentic – even our language doesn’t authentically portray how we feel – how much more, then, are businesses often inauthentic?

Lets skip into February when Pepsi release the Pepsi Refresh Project. How is it authentic? Indeed, can they really truly care, whilst they are simultaneously doing this for profit? Then again, is their decision to plough $20 million into community projects evidence that they do care? Where is the line of authenticity here? It feels like a never ending circle, but I’m sure together we can come up with some answers.

What’s in Common?

The other challenge, when the platform is not the product, is that commonality becomes an issue. Pepsi drinkers, for instance might not be the most altruistic people on the earth, and therefor have little in common with the campaign. However, Like Minds attendees are interested into thought leadership, and therefore have much in common with my thought leadership. You see the difference – which when we carry it along, I come to the conclusion that:

It is easier to unite people around a platform that is a product, than a platform that is not the product.

Why? Because your audience partakes of your product simaltaneously as they participate in your platform.

Think back to the church example. If you are mowing lawns with a church, then are you participating in church – even if you aren’t a Christian. Why? Because as I said, when the church mows a lawn, the church is being what it is – church. Which means if you are mowing the lawns with them, then you are, in that moment, being one with them.

Pepsi’s inherent problem then, is that whilst people are involved in these community projects, they aren’t simultaneously partaking of the Pepsi product. Hey – they aren’t even participating in Pepsi’s brand proposition or brand values.

This for me seems to be a problem – there’s no relation, no commonality. Their probably are ways to find this commonality – but to be successful, doesn’t this require at least some brand values to shift towards this social model, in order for their to be more authenticity?

A Question of Connection

My final thoughts tend towards how strong a connection this type of campaign makes. We’ve yet to see it go live – and of course, given that it is about social change, I’m keen for it to succeed. I’m just curious about how they are going to execute this.

First, like I said earlier, I don’t see this kind of activity to be in line with Pepsi’s brand values. Second, Facebook will be the main draw with Social Networking (that’s where the audience lives) – so how will they tie that in, and get anywhere near a good participation level (given that the whole campaign is likely to be held on another site.)

I’m currently thinking about levels of participation, and this campaign strikes me as one that will require high levels. So who do they have on the ground? How have they tied people in already? You can’t create a campaign with high levels of participation, and hope it goes viral. You need to have prepared your sneezers well in advance.

So

So let me here from you. Specifically, I’d like to you if you think it’ll work – if so, how? Also, what are the implications with authenticity here? Authenticity seems to be very muddy waters, mainly because it is subjective, rendered, and never fully actualised. Let’s talk it through!

Photo with thanks to Thomas Hawk.

Archived Comments

  • http://twitter.com/chrish10 chris hall

    Scott

    I wholeheartedly agree with the message and the concepts of authenticity/platforms & causes. I think it’s important to realise that Pepsi’s strategy isn’t about shifting cans to the people who engage in the social causes but to implant, subconsciously & subliminally the pepsi mantra: that it’s a good company and next time I want a cola (notice I didn’t say the other brand name cos that’s the point of what pepsi is doing) that I’ll buy PEPSI. Bingo!

    It will also work ‘socially’. People engaged with the whole thing will pass on through their own social networks what they’re doing – word of mouth, facebook, youtube, twitter, email etc etc.

    I suspect Pepsi will gain $100 million dollar return from their $20 million investment. Way more than through the traditional, and less spreadable, route of TV.

    I’d rather a brand presented a campaign based on this type of approach than previous methods. At least the audience can engage and in some way collaborate with the brand. And if it does some good then it may just be a win-win for all.

  • Scott Gould

    True – but I still wonder about the issues I flagged of connection and authenticity.

    Saying “the whole thing will pass on through their own social networks what they’re doing – word of mouth, facebook, youtube, twitter, email etc etc. ” isn’t good enough – we need to now how it will, how like it is that it will, and if it will. This sharing doesn’t just happen!

    Knowing these things, those of us who are practitioners can better learn and do likewise.

  • Cathy Debenham

    Call me an old cynic, but having worked in the voluntary sector for many years, it strikes me that much of the corporate emphasis in cause-related marketing has been on ‘marketing’, with the cause just there to make people feel good about buying the product and associated benefit for the corporate brand. However, this can pose problems for the cause (charity or whatever) if there isn’t a close fit between its values and those of the corporate it teams up with. The danger is of the charity’s brand being devalued.

    So in the case of Pepsi I agree with Chris Hall’s comment that Pepsi will probably do fine out of it. People may see it in a new, warmer, fuzzier light. Although if they associate Pepsi with jumping off canyons and the other extreme sports featured in the Pepsi Max ads, they may be confused.

    As to the beneficiaries: if they’re small community based groups I’m sure they will be very happy to have the money. If they are larger charitable organisations I’d advise them to look closely at how well their brand values match Pepsi’s before getting into bed with them.

  • Scott Gould

    Hey Cathy – I agree with you a lot here – and I’m glad that you agree with me that there must be synergy between the company’s values and the causes’ values.

    Good comments – glad you’re reading

    :-)

  • samwell101

    This is a great discussion topic. I’d like to respond, firstly by asking why authenticity is important and who actually cares? I think that authenticity is defined differently according to context; which I think aligns quite closely with your platform model Scott. I will try to explain…

    As a small business owner, authenticity is essential and I wouldn’t be able to survive and grow if our values, products and services were inauthentic. Why? because most of our business development is peer to peer, face to face, word of mouth and reputation based. We must be transparent, up-front and honest. My brand is me, my people and the quality we provide, which I think falls more closely in to the Platform is the product model.

    For bigger brands (and we can look at Pepsi, although I’m fighting the temptation to use “the real thing” slogan) authenticity is measured and judged in an entirely different way; and here I am thinking with the mind of a consumer. Do I care about the altruistic nature of a brand when engaging with a product? In all honestly, probably not – and certainly not as much as I should do. I would assume that until there is a major cultural shift, that consumption is still the driving force behind most buying decisions. We’d like to say that ethics are the driving force, but for the mainstream they are not. There are too many examples of consumers engaging with and buying from “bad” brands.

    So, perhaps for Pepsi’s consumers, an expression of authenticity is an authentic taste. If Pepsi loses its authentic taste, it loses its customer base.

    Will Pepsi’s shift in to cause marketing work? Probably yes, purely by the virtue that is a cynical blunder into an (as yet) unexploited brand space (I agree with Cathy Debenham’s comments regarding devaluing charity brands). Is it authentic? No, because it is not backed up by a broader and sustainable set of brand-wide values. Neither is it the start of Pepsi’s intention to take a long-term shift to being 100% altruistic. Will consumers care? In the mainstream no.

  • annholman

    Nice post again Scott! I like samwell101’s point! That perhaps it is different when you engage with a product rather than a human? However, as I’ve mentioned before people are replacing products in terms of differentiation and competition.

    Corporates have been doing it for years already, Tescos computers for schools to name but one. In the past though, this has been a tertiary marketing tactic and perhaps all that Pepsi are doing now is bringing that marketing tactic to the forefront of their marketing approach cos’ the other stuff ain’t working anymore!

    It’s an interesting development though, but it lets not get carried away it really is only a marketing tactic. I don’t think there is any authentic motivation at all from Pepsi. However, if it means that social and community groups benefit, what the hell, its far better on many fronts than David Beckham or three skateboarders shouting at me from the corner of my sitting room!

    Companies, I believe do have a responsibility for social change and the communities they are involved in. We have past examples Rowntrees, Cadburys and Jacobs. That said, companies must make profits, so it’s perhaps not what you do it’s how you do it?

    People buy from people, even when a mass product is involved. Companies have been rumbled and people are seeking out ‘real’ experiences with transparency and authenticity heading up the approach. It means closing the gap between image and the reality. And, thats actually about reputation, which, perhaps is Pepsi’s motivation at the end of the day!

  • Scott Gould

    Hey Sam

    This was very insightful to read. You highlight the difference between ‘local’ authenticity and ‘global’ authenticity – I’m keen to learn how they differ, and how they are both sustained!

  • Scott Gould

    Thanks for the kind words Ann

    There’s some great thoughts that are being brought up here, and I do want to get to the bottom of them. It’s not enough, for me, to say “there’s a balance”, I want to know where the balance is!

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