Can Pepsi buy its way into community and social media?

Pepsi Refresh Project to support community service

Pepsi does have some experience in community service.

By now everyone knows that Pepsi has pulled out of the Superbowl after 23 consecutive years. Instead the company plans to funnel the better hunk of its advertising budget into online programs such as the Pepsi Refresh Project, an effort that will fund thousands of consumer conceived initiatives with $5,000, $25,000, $50,000 and $250,000 grants. According to Pepsi, they’re looking for ideas that “make us think, inspire us and ignite participation” in categories that include health, arts & culture, food & shelter, the planet, neighborhoods and education.

If anyone’s been wondering when social media would move from the wings onto the main stage, this might be it. While a lot of us have been trying to steer clients in this direction one conversation at a time, preliminary reports suggest that Pepsi is getting out the checkbook, the creative guns, and the PR machine and taking social media to a new level by using the tools and tactics (community, conversation) along with the platforms (Twitter, Facebook) to harness the power of the crowd. It’s not like other companies and organizations haven’t done this, but a $20 million-plus commitment is worth noting.

Done right the Pepsi Refresh Project has the potential to create one of the first examples of a company being a social media company rather than simply a company doing social media. But I intentionally put the emphasis on the word potential.

Social media at its best is about listening, engaging, connecting and inspiring. At first glance Pepsi’s efforts seem a little bit more about buying. Whether or not the effort turns out to be genuine and authentic remains to be seen.

To date the companies most committed to social media (Zappos, Whole Foods, Starbucks) are brands that have community and customer engagement in their DNA. None of them have traditionally been outbound marketers dependent on advertising that interrupts. They’ve used social media naturally for everything from customer service to community building and crowdsourcing.

The question is whether Pepsi, simply by giving away money and deciding to support causes, will come across as authentic or exploitive.

Either way we can be sure of one thing. Big brands’ dependence on old media continues to decline. What do you think? Will Pepsi set in example? Or be made an example of?