Fizz or fizzle? Pepsi ads end-run Super Bowl, go digital
Britney Spears is dressed as a hippie in a Pepsi commercial that became one of Pepsi's most famous Super Bowl ads.
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Adam Kmiec will watch the Super Bowl broadcast closely, texting and Twittering with colleagues about whether a commercial was creative enough or if a spot will capture consumers' attention and make them buy.
But the company that the Marc USA interactive marketing executive is hoping will be most successful may be the one that won't be advertising its core product during the big game.
Pepsi, which has spent an estimated $254.2 million in Super Bowl ads over the past 20 years, startled the industry a few weeks ago by announcing the cola for the next generation won't participate in America's national football marketing extravaganza. Instead, the soft drink company will pour millions of dollars into an online project meant to build connections over time by reaching consumers through blogging, Facebook and Twitter. It plans to distribute more than $20 million in community grants, voted on by Web users.
This could be a significant moment for the digital ad evolution that's been starting and stalling and then revving up again for years. Advertisers have been teased by the potential, struggled to keep up with the latest innovations and endlessly debated the proper balance between traditional and new marketing mediums.
Mr. Kmiec, who blogs about marketing in addition to working on digital innovation for the Station Square-based agency, thinks Pepsi's gamble could either open up ad budgets for those who advocate spending more on digital efforts or could -- if it fails -- set the interactive movement back years. "This has the potential to ... advance us so far ahead, or it has the potential to completely torpedo us," he said. "I want it to succeed."
It may seem odd to think digital marketing still needs to prove itself. In the past recession-plagued year, it's been one of the few areas where advertisers spent more.
TNS Media Intelligence last month reported that total ad expenditures fell 14.7 percent in the first nine months of 2009, with the third quarter alone off 15.3 percent. Almost every category from television to magazines to newspapers and radio dropped. Spending on Internet display ads rose 7 percent even as a general rush to hand out more traditional coupons boosted free-standing advertising inserts distributed along with newspapers or magazines by 3.9 percent.
The incursion of digital marketing into the plans of major companies has produced a lot of headline-grabbing efforts. Just last year, the top-rated Super Bowl commercial on USA Today's ad ranking was a Doritos spot produced by two unemployed brothers from Indiana for a consumer-generated commercial contest held by Pepsi's Frito-Lay division.
Yet total marketing spending on the Internet in the first nine months of last year still trailed that on television, magazines and newspapers, according to TNS.
Bronson Smith, co-creative director at Smith Brothers Agency on the North Shore, boldly ventured into an interactive agency job back in 1996. One of the main assignments then was to build generally static, informational brand websites, although CD-ROMs also were popular.
"There was a sense of urgency on the part of most large brands to just get online," he recalled. They didn't know quite what they planned to do online, but they wanted a presence.
At one point, Mr. Smith joked, the hot tech companies were among the big spenders on, yes, Super Bowl ads. Then came the dot-com bust, which wiped out some of those big spenders and scared other companies from marketing a lot online. Ad agencies too heavily focused on the tech world got burned, too.
The last couple of years have changed the atmosphere again, helped along by the economic bust that spurred companies to check how effectively they were using the marketing budget they had left.
The opening up of social networking site Facebook beyond the collegiate crowd helped advertisers find a low-cost framework in which to talk about themselves and try to build relationships with consumers. Some have made it work while others seem to be boring "friends."
Twitter feeds were another inexpensive way to connect directly with hard-core fans, although the industry continues to debate the staying power of that digital medium.
Even websites that may have been relatively unchanged for three or four years got a second look last year, Rick Gardinier recently told an industry blogger in a video interview posted, yes, online. "We had more conversation than I can ever remember about marketing goals and business goals and revisiting website strategies than I can remember in the last eight to 10 years," said the senior vice president and chief digital official at Downtown-based Brunner.
Pepsi may be uniquely positioned to test whether more intimate interactive media can serve as a sales driver for a major product better than a powerful mass blast such as a Super Bowl ad, said Mr. Kmiec. As the No. 2 soft drink company, it may be free to take a few more risks than No. 1 Coke.
Pepsi also is a marketing powerhouse. Whatever happens, its report to shareholders on the results may carry more weight than claims by a tiny startup.
Jessica Ong, blogging for Web analytics company Compete Inc. in Boston, looked at Pepsi's sponsorship of the National Football League's Rookie of the Week section on the league's website.
By her analysis, people exposed to Pepsi ads on that site were 36 times more likely to visit Pepsi Web sites than online browsers who didn't see the company's NFL.com ads. That bodes well for the Refresh Project. "Pepsi is making the right move by shifting their ad dollars online where they are clearly making an impact with their media buys by changing consumer behavior in their favor," she wrote.
Agencies in Pittsburgh are increasingly integrating digital skills across their teams. In a recent announcement of several new hires at Smith Brothers, half included the word "interactive" in the job title and another was a social media manager. Last month, the Strip District office of Mullen laid off some employees, a move driven in part by the rough economy but also to reflect the digital evolution.
"I do think in the last year it's become apparent you need to have the skill set," said Brian Bronaugh, president and executive creative director at the Strip District office of Mullen.
But as much as digital has seeped into almost everything, the work force -- and consumers -- illustrate that different generations still interact with marketing differently and make purchasing decisions using different tools.
Mr. Smith, at Smith Brothers, offered the example of some work his agency did recently for Downtown's Point Park University, which offers both undergraduate and graduate programs. The graduate marketing targeting an older audience was designed for a mix of online and traditional mediums.
Meanwhile, the undergraduate marketing targeting high school juniors and seniors came in the form of the tongue-in-cheek creation of a Web site for a rather boring university in the middle of nowhere. Those who land at genericu.com can see short webisodes showing dolls talking about waiting years to study anything in their majors and enjoying having little to do in their free time.
If digital marketing gets a boost from the Pepsi experiment, it's unlikely to end all spending on more traditional media venues or force the Super Bowl ad staff to slash its prices. Even those who love online opportunities regularly propose budgets that put some money into TV and some into direct marketing, cherry-picking the places that seem likely to build momentum in concert.
And, just as soon as a CEO accepts the idea of creating a Facebook page or placing banner ads on niche websites, some entirely new marketing tool is likely to turn up that may or may not be effective for a particular company.
Ad agencies say they just have to keep paying attention on behalf of their clients. "There's something in the works out there right now that's going to make a big different for one of our clients soon," said Mr. Smith.
First Published January 26, 2010 12:00 am