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Pepsi CMO: why advertising should be more like the Empire campaign

Advertising Strategy Advertising Strategy
Photo credit:

Jason Ippolito

Staying true to its music icon-making heritage, Pepsi strikes again with outstanding product placement authenticity.

There’s a framed adage sitting just above Seth Kaufman’s desk at the PepsiCo New York headquarters that reads:

“If you spoke to people the way advertising does, they would punch you in the face.”

It’s a constant reminder to the CMO of PepsiCo’s North America Beverages (NAB), responsible for all marketing activities around brands like Pepsi-Cola, Aquafina, Lipton iced teas, and Mountain Dew, of how customers should be treated in brand communications.

Primarily: not like fools.

With this in mind, Pepsi opted to re-work the traditional 30-second TV spot. The replacement was a three-episode advert. The advertising strategy formed the mid-season finale storyline of US hip-hop drama “Empire.”

The premise was simple. For the realms of advertising, however, it was fresh and creative.

Pepsi paid a large sum of money, thought to be around $20 million, in a deal that would see series Co-Creator Lee Daniels along with the show’s writers, craft a story in which one of the main characters, Jamal Lyon, works toward landing a Pepsi commercial.

“Music,” says a character in the show, “is part of Pepsi’s DNA. We have a long history of getting behind emerging artists and partnering with iconic stars.”

Pepsi, having helped propel the careers of some of the world’s most famous musicians, from Britney Spears to Michael Jackson, feature “authentically” throughout the show in an advertising strategy that Kaufman describes as “true to Pepsi’s heritage.”

For fledgling star Lyon, taking this route seems to be the perfect medium to attain stardom.

Creating a song named “Ready to go,” he wins the assignment and plays the finished commercial at an award ceremony in the final episode.

Whereas usually, the show would go to a commercial break, as part of the deal, viewers see the full 60-second ad featuring Lyon instead. It then cuts back to the show.

“This idea of being native,” says Kaufman, “whatever the context, is so powerful. Here you have Empire viewers and anyone who engages with the show or its social platforms seeing Pepsi in a truly authentic and contextually powerful advertising strategy. This to me is exactly what native is.”

Talking to Adage, a Fox Executive commented, “The integration works because it works for the show. The storyline is true to the show. We made a great effort to make sure this particular storyline is natural and not overly commercial.”

Kaufman says,“I think it is up to us as an industry to continue to innovate around how best to serve up messages in ways that are truly relevant for consumers. It’s of great importance that brands enhance rather than disrupt experiences.”

Disrupted experience, of course, is the very reason advertising strategy innovation has had to occur in the first place. It reached fever pitch in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Media agencies, emerging from the digital revolution as the architects of modern day advertising strategy, rose with ferocity to provide low quality, high volume advertising. With efficiencies rather than creativity driving the race, the consumer paid for it in poor user experience and wasted time.

Take online publishing.

When it comes down to economics, the first thing to remember is that job no.1 isn’t to get the content to you, but instead, to monetize you.

In fact, every time you open up a page you are being sold off to the highest bidder. No two pages will look the same because of the sheer enormity of the ad tech ecosystem that installs unthinkable numbers of scripts and cookies to ensure that the brand messages and sales pitches are tailored uniquely to you.

According to one Wall Street Journal study, the top 50 international news sites from Bloomberg, to CNN, install an average of 64 data-laden cookies and personal tracking beacons onto your computer.

Search for a word like “depression” on Dictionary.com, and the site installs up to 223 more cookies so that antidepressant manufacturers can target you.

A 2015 report entitled ‘Attitudes to Sponsored and Branded Content (Native Advertising)’, from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, looked at the effect that varying types of online advertising have had on user experience and brand perception.

They found a correlation between the amount of interruption caused by ads and the abhorrence toward a brand. Around three in ten respondents said that they find traditional banner advertising distracting, and will actively avoid sites that interfere with content too much.

Change needs to be made, and quickly. An advertising strategy that counter-intuitively cuts back on ads makes for shorter commercial breaks whilst placing brands at the heart of programming. It is this aspect that interests Kaufman. He believes that, “the world has changed,” and as such, the change has seen, “consumers interact with brands differently.”

He was appointed to the role in late 2015 and since then has set out not just to be where other customers are, but to connect and engage with them, “authentically in new ways.”

After all, being CMO at a Fortune-500 company with a heritage as rich as Pepsi comes with a lot of pressure to develop long-lasting, precedent-setting advertising strategy that catalyzes future growth across a portfolio of world-renowned brands.

The problem, and one that plagues much of the industry is simple: how do you advertise without advertising?

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 15.39.51

Millennials, the digital natives making up the largest US generation (75.4 million), possess a unifying factor – none of them like to be advertised to. The effect of the changes is being felt dearly. As Teads displayed above in their report on ‘Sustainable Advertising’.

And so with traditional display revenue in a sustained freefall, taking the native approach and, “really connecting with consumers in a way that touches them and changes behaviors,” for Kaufman “means starting with that lens of authenticity.”

Compelling, relevant and bespoke creative work that fits seamlessly within its own environment could well be the answer to the graph above. It’ll be more entertaining too.