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The Best Super Bowl Ad You Didn’t See on Sunday

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Sure, with over 90 million viewers the Super Bowl is one of the most watched events on the planet. Its commercials have become an essential part of Super Bowl appeal and folklore. Super Bowl spots generate more buzz than the halftime show spectaculars. Last week Nielsen released a study that shows more viewers like watching the ads than they do the game by a margin of 51 to 49! Even in a challenging economic environment and at $2.5 to $3 million per :30, CBS sold out its Super Bowl inventory of 50 commercial slots in record time.

As a longtime advertising guy who has been part of all this commercial fun and frenzy since Super Bowl I, I readily admit that  I too eagerly awaited the 2010 commercial lineup and the subsequent debate over the hits and misses. For the most part this year’s crop was disappointing, but there will always be a market and demand for Super Bowl advertising stardom. That’s not in question.

So, What’s the Big Deal?

After 23 consecutive years of paying big dollars to air some of the best Super Bowl spots ever, Pepsi’s decided to opt out as a Super Bowl sponsor when Coca Cola stayed in, making headline-grabbing news. It certainly was the number one topic of discussion among the students taking my USC graduate school advertising strategy class. So, we decided to apply some Asset-Based Thinking and look for the “teaching moments” in all of this media hype. The more important story that emerges with even bigger implications lies in what Pepsi is doing in lieu of spending all that Super Bowl cash. Pepsi turned the deficits and problems associated with pulling out of the Super Bowl into brand assets and opportunities by implementing a smart, creative, values-based marketing program.

The Refresh Project: Fostering Innovation In Social Good Through Social Marketing
Throughout 2010 Pepsi will be doling out at least $20 million to fund great ideas that improve America's communities. “Pepsi will fund ideas that will move the world forward in six categories: Health, Arts & Culture, Food & Shelter, The Planet, Neighborhoods and Education. People are encouraged to submit their ideas and cast a vote for their favorite projects at the Refresh Project website www.refresheverything.com.” There will be commercials to promote the project, substantial digital media, customized content created by media partners, and extensive use of social media, all part of year-long consumer engagement program that Pepsi hopes will become a key element of the brand’s relationship with people and demonstrate that doing good is also good for business.

A Very Smart Brand-Building Decision 

The Pepsi brand has established a reputation for thinking differently and aligning itself with the exuberance of youth through upbeat messaging and staying ahead of the communications curve. Pepsi’s Super Bowl sidestep and concurrent social media plunge hit the mark in six important ways:

  1. Pulling out of the Super Bowl is a provocative way for Pepsi to question conventional wisdom and is very much in line with its brand values. The brand’s absence generated as much, if not more, coverage and discussion than usually afforded the actual commercials. 
  2. Their opt-out is in sync with current and emerging consumer values of responsible consumption and spending. Meaning matters as much as money and much more than hype.
  3. Pepsi’s opt-in to social media shows that it understands and values the new way people connect and communicate.
  4. By aggressively embracing "cause marketing" with a significant financial commitment (over $20 million) Pepsi tangibly demonstrates a respect for and commitment to corporate social responsibility. This resonates with youth and shows that Pepsi is willing to do what it takes to deliver on that promise.
  5. The Pepsi Refresh Project is a powerful delivery of the brand’s new global campaign the: “Every generation refreshes the world. Now it’s your turn.” (I posted an earlier commentary on the Pepsi campaign.)  The Refresh Project provides the delivery system for people to bring this theme to life in their own way. 
  6. Pepsi is trading a perishable advertising message for a sustainable communications platform upon which a wide array of engagements with people can be developed, grow, and take on a life of their own. 

The Medium (or Absence of It) Is the Message

Having an advertising presence in the Super Bowl carries with it a certain cachet and gravitas. Participating as an advertiser “says something” about a brand or company’s importance, resources, and creativity. The message delivered can result in anything from a fleeting moment of creative fame or flop, to something that becomes an institutionalized part of one of America’s most beloved and iconic sporting events. Pepsi certainly has become part of the Super Bowl sponsor elite so its decision to opt out spoke volumes about the Pepsi Brand. Here’s what it said. 

Pepsi…. 

  • Is bold enough to move from being one of the “usual suspects” expected to show up on Super Bowl Sunday to being the “exceptional exception” that people seek out and personally engage with all year.
  • Has the confidence to trade the immediate, center stage brand buzz of a spectacular event for an ongoing, meaningful conversation that builds a sustained shared experience.
  • Is proud to share and live its brand values through the values and passions of other people.

This quote from Lee Clow, the legendary chief creative office of Pepsi’s ad agency, TBWA Worldwide, sums it up well: “Our idea was that this year we’d try to shift the marketing and communications to something that’s truly walking the walk. The goal is to develop a mechanism for young people to create ideas to make things better that will ultimately become part of the global behavior of the brand.”

The "P" in Pepsi Stands for People

All of this reaffirms my belief that for companies and brands to survive and thrive in the future they must value people as assets and embrace a transparent and ongoing "people" strategy as the fifth pillar of the marketing mix – right alongside Product, Price, Place, and Promotion. My article from a few months ago, “From Mad Man To Twitterholic,”  describes how social media have fundamentally changed the game on Madison Avenue. What we’re seeing with the Pepsi Refresh Project and the company's exit from the Super Bowl is a manifestation of these systemic changes and a sign of exciting and positive things to come. Trust, Transparency, and Truth are the new currency of marketing. The Pepsi Refresh Project spends the Pepsi brand currency very wisely. By the way, is anyone talking about the Coke commercials?

Oh yeah. Super Bowl LXIV turned out to be one hell of a game – much better than the commercials. Congratulations to the Saints and the people of New Orleans.

Can’t wait until next year!

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About Hank Wasiak

Hank Wasiak is a communications industry leader and partner at the creative hot shop, The Concept Farm. Hank began his advertising career in 1965 as a real Mad Man at Benton & Bowles. He is a best selling author, teacher, motivational speaker and three time Emmy award winning television host. Hank and Dr. Kathy Cramer created a best selling business - self help book series based on Asset-Based Thinking published by Running Press. Hank also is an Adjunct Professor at USC's Marshall School Of Business.
  • Jo-Lynne Worley

    Great blog. Even though I’m not a fan of Pepsi, I think your way of thinking about this and the social media value of Pepsi pulling out is spot on.

  • http://assetbasedthinking.com/ Hank Wasiak

    Thanks Jo Lynne. This is really some good asset-based thinking at work. Maybe you will convert to Pepsi one of these days.