Pepsi’s “Gulf Refresh” a little hard to swallow.
Early this year, Pepsi announced its “Pepsi Refresh Project,” which was a way of allowing the “followers” of Pepsi in Social Media to nominate worthwhile ideas or public service projects Pepsi could fund.
So far, the program has been a win/win for Pepsi. The soft drink maker received plenty of media attention for its Refresh Project, and it gave it a chance to connect with its fans and followers in a meaningful way.
In light of the recent Gulf disaster, Pepsi expanded its Refresh Project into a “Do Good for the Gulf” Refresh campaign. Pepsi has pledged $1.3 million to consumer submitted ideas that could “refresh the communities of the Gulf states.” Pepsi invited the public to submit ideas through July 16. Starting August 2, consumers can vote on the ideas they like best. Finalists will be announced on September 2, and grants will be awarded on September 22.
On the surface, this initiative seems to hit all the right notes. It’s a natural way to extend Pepsi’s Social Media campaign while doing some much-needed good. But to the skeptical part of me, this just doesn’t smell right. By tying itself to a major disaster, the company has to carefully walk the line between legitimate cause marketing and shameless self promotion. Is the company’s driving intention to help the residents of the Gulf, or is it to promote the Pepsi brand?
Here are a few of my reservations:
1) The amount pledged. Hey $1.3 million isn’t chump change by any stretch of the imagination. But knowing the inner workings of corporate marketing/PR departments, I can easily imagine the company is paying ten times that amount to promote and administer the program. It’s like those solicitations you get to help feed the children of Africa, but when you look into the financials of the organization, you find out that only 5 cents of your dollar goes for food. In other words, if Pepsi’s #1 concern is providing for Gulf residents, it could do better.
2) The company’s involvement in the “crowd sourcing” part of this project. The focus strictly on Social Media means the system will be gamed—heavy users Social Media will have more of a say than your average Gulf resident. While that fits with the original intention and structure of the Refresh Project, it feels somewhat ham-handed for dealing with people’s legitimate needs and concerns.
3) The very public way the company is going about this promotion. It seems a little too “corporate” and well-planned. Disasters are messy. Carefully orchestrated philanthropy feels out of place. For an example of a company that did it right, think back to WalMart in the days following Hurricane Katrina. With no fanfare, the company’s stores loaded tens of thousands of bottles of fresh water on its trucks and delivered them to needy residents before the media even showed up.
There’s nothing wrong with an organization striving to get noticed for its good works. If I were advising Pepsi on how to follow through on this project, here’s what I’d tell them:
1) Find out what the needs are NOW and address them. Why wait until the end of September to actually do something? The days immediately following a disaster are when the needs and opportunities are most critical. Find out what needs aren’t being addressed now, and address them. If there’s a need for more shovels or graders to comb the beaches, provide them. If volunteers need accommodations, equipment, hazmat suits or respirators (or cell phones to call home), provide them. Go ahead and collect nominations from the Facebook crowd, but don’t let them lead you on this.
2) Involve the Pepsi community as a whole. Allow folks beyond the Gulf in California or Nebraska or Idaho to contribute to the cause. Set up a dollar-for-dollar match campaign with specific projects in mind. Or start a general Gulf Fund where the company would handle all administrative expenses so every dollar goes to the cause, whether its shrimp fishermen’s families, bankrupted hotel operators or whatever.
3) Make a long-term pledge. Don’t bug out as soon as the story falls off the front page. Commit that “five cents of every Pepsi product purchased will go to Gulf aid,” or something like that.
4) Don’t focus on getting attention. No need to string huge Pepsi banners on the beaches, put logos everywhere and arrange for press briefings. Just get out there and do what you know needs done. People will notice. Stories will spread. This will be more powerful than an orchestrated Social Media campaign.
Public skepticism of corporations is high right now. The first question many consumers will ask of your good works is “What’s in it for you?” It pays to be as transparent as possible. If your #1 intention is to do good, then do good. Don’t worry about how you can milk your efforts.
Posted by Mickey
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