October 22, 2012

What The Hell Are They Teaching?

There was a piece in Ad Age last week featuring the astoundingly clueless opinions of marketing and business professors on the subject of the Pepsi Refresh project.

The amazing thing is that these people weren't from Southwest Arkansas State. These guys were from Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, Penn and Notre Dame.

It makes it clear why so many young people in advertising are confused about what they're supposed to be doing. And just how out of touch these experts are.

Before we take a look at the comments, let's review the facts:
  • In 2010, Pepsi diverted scores of millions of dollars from traditional advertising (including their Super Bowl sponsorship and their traditional TV advertising) into a massive social media project.
  • After one year of this, they had lost 5% of their business.
  • Their sales dropped by an estimated half a billion dollars.
  • They fell from their traditional 2nd place in the soft drink category to 3rd place.
  • Their sales erosion increased widely compared to the previous year
  • Their beverage ceo was so upset he said he was going to "blow up the place."
  • Many of the key players are now gone from Pepsi
  • After burning astronomical amounts of money on this, Pepsi finally killed it in March.
If that doesn't describe a complete marketing disaster, I don't know what does. So what do the academics have to say about Refresh?
"...we don't know whether it was effective or not." 
What?! We DON'T KNOW??? Maybe you need a few research assistants to do a thesis for you, then you'll know. What has to happen to convince you that it bombed? Do lab rats have to grow two heads?
"I have read that the project had over 60 million folks involved. That is a pretty impressive accomplishment."
No, the "pretty impressive" part was how they got hundreds of millions of people to buy 5% less Pepsi. Now that's impressive.
"...it has helped further the conversation about the role of purpose in brand marketing."
Oh, the f/ing conversation! That old thing still alive on campus? Here on planet Earth, professor, we buried that putrid monkey about 2 years ago. How about this -- the "role of purpose" is to sell shit. Any further questions?
"It shows the power of making a big commitment to these causes. People really responded and said Pepsi is a good company."
Yeah, everywhere I go people can't stop talking about what a good company Pepsi is. I can hardly get a conversation going about the election or football.
"It's something that will be more and more relevant and more mainstream."

First of all, no company will ever again be stupid enough to listen to the delusional blather of "social media marketing experts" and do what Pepsi did.

Second, the "mainstream" doesn't need lessons from corporate America in good citizenship. We don't need lectures from white collar windbags who hide every dollar of profit they can from the tax system. We don't need holier-than-thou pronouncements from sugar-water peddlers about their high-minded principles. We don't need exhortations from overfed sharpies about our responsibilities as citizens.

You want to sell us stuff? Fine. Tell us what you got and why we need it.

Otherwise, we can do very well without your cynical gimmicks and corporate chest-pounding disguised as social virtue.


Neil C said...

Fantastic post. Except for this bit:

"First of all, no company will ever again be stupid enough to listen to the delusional blather of "social media marketing experts" and do what Pepsi did."

I wish that were true. But unfortunately, it isn't.

Rob Mortimer said...

Agree with the sentiment, one question thought its worth asking.

Do you think the decline was down to the refresh project failing, or down to lack of tv campaign and branding?

Clearly it was less effective than previous years, but maybe doing both would have worked far better than swapping one for the other.

Anonymous said...

I think for sugar water marketers, meaning/purpose - especially when packaged as a "marketing program" and at the expense of advertising - is an ill-chosen route. Can't say that's true of every business, especially those for whom advertising isn't a principal promotional tool. Nonetheless, I fully agree with - and will steal - your line, "the "role of purpose" is to sell shit. Any further questions?"

Unknown said...

Looks like the future of marketing will have two types of marketeer.. those who market on behalf of a client (i.e., selling something measurable) and those who market marketing (i.e. selling a method)

The trick for the client is identifying which is which.

Chris Seiger said...

Sounds like the professors are trying to sell shit to their students. At least I think it's shit. It smells familiar, that's for sure.

KL said...

Great post, but I have much more confidence in the ability, no the determination, of other companies to continue having grandiosly stupid conversations about brand purpose, despite this fabulous Pepsi example.

Anonymous said...

Some of these respectable professors from the same universities that promoted the junk subprimes?

Tim said...

I thought the old stereotype "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." had been dead and buried for a long time. Looks like it's trying to make a comeback.

Alex said...

Aside from a few academics somewhere, don't think there's any debate the Pepsi Refresh project was, in fact, a failure. The real question is why?

My view is that if the Pepsi Refresh project shows us one thing, it's that you can't just take your entire budget, put it into a social media initiative, and expect it to replace the impact of all other communication. The reason it failed is not because it was inherently bad, but because it wasn't adequately integrated into a through-the-line communication strategy. The mistake they made was thinking that good acts alone would be enough to sell product.

Saying that all marketing initiatives that create value for consumers are bound to fail, however, is far too broad and far-reaching a statement. The key is to keep your eye on the prize — sales -- and design communication plans (across all channels) accordingly.

Did Pepsi Refresh Project fail? Yes. But it's important we take the right lessons away from that failure.

Patrick Stratton said...

Great post. Fantastic to have comments back too...

Rob Mortimer (aka Famous Rob) said...

I think you answered my point well Alex. I don't believe the mistake was to put good money into social stuff, but was diverting too much money from the wider brand profile into a separate project that didn't fit into an overall strategy.

Jim said...

Funny isn't it, before Pepsi Refresh the social media people said the problem is brands are not investing enough time and money. Then it's too much once it failed. Then it's not integrated enough. It's like talking with goldilocks.

Harvey Briggs said...


Anonymous said...

I am going to send this to the world Bob.
I read the same column you did and was bewildered by their statements.
Just because you teach marketing, this doesn't qualify you to be a great resource when it comes to honestly answering the question DID THE PLAN WORK?

Terry Gorry said...

This is a super post and this blog has forced me to reactivate my Google reader account in case I miss anything.
There is so much cant being spread about social media marketing that it is not even amusing anymore.

Stefan Pertz said...

I cannot wait to read your thoughts on the recent "Jaguar rebranding" push!

Big fan of yours,
Stefan Pertz
Founder, Launchpad Sdn Bhd

Carrie Talick said...

Jeff, this is the best post I've read in a year about the adverse and largely ignored effects of social marketing. Nobody gives a shit about whether or not a corporation is good to people.

Great post. Great insights. Bring back the days where good ideas ruled instead of new media. And by all means, remember that our job is to help sell shit, for fuck's sake.


Armando Alves said...

I expect you to assume the same attention whenever a TV campaign fails on similar dimension. several editions of Super Bowl ads occur to me.

And i do feel Pepsi Refresh was a failure. but then again, everything is obvious once you know the answer/outcome.

As a big fan of critical thought, i'm beggining to get tired of the group thinking/ partisan comments at the Ad Contrarian. Of course, you're welcome to completely ignore this comment.