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When Meaning Is Meaningless
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Pepsi Is Doubling Down On Its Refresh Project, But Shouldn't It Sell Soda Pop?

Pepsi is so happy with its "Refresh Project" social media marketing campaign that it has renewed funding for 2011 and will expand it to the rest of the world. This year it will give away $20 million to the good works projects that win the most supportive votes from consumers, representing "true democratization of the philanthropic process," according to a company spokesman.

I say it's really dumb, and not just slightly dishonest.

Pepsi's campaign is part of a new trend in marketing that could be loosely labelled "meaning marketing," and the reasoning for it goes something like this:

  • All the traditional media for talking to consumers don't work anymore. Nobody is reading, watching, or listening to them
     
  • Brands and corporate reputations have no credibility because they formerly used all of said media to lie to consumers, or simply make them do things (like buy stuff...the nerve!)
     
  • Instead, consumers rely on new media, much of it social (i.e. two-way) and in which it's impossible to put traditional marketing messages (which wouldn’t be believed anyway
     
  • Therefore, brands need to reach for topics utterly unrelated to their businesses, unconnected to the user experience of their products or services, and unlikely to be branded or otherwise labelled their own
     
  • Like being funny, aspiring to do good in the world is a way to deliver meaning to consumers without tarnishing it with a now-discredited marketing pitch

So there's nothing that Pepsi can tell us that has anything to do with its actual business, or even somewhat relates to our potential consumption of soda pop? Its Refresh Project isn't new-and-improved marketing, it's non-marketing, and yet it declares its conduct as some profound success.

Well, that’s only if you can speak Jibberish, as its success builds on the company’s "Refresh Everything" initiative and "...showing the brand as an optimistic catalyst for idea creation, leading to an ever-refreshing world." It's consistent with Pepsi's new "Performance with Purpose" platform. Phew! It counts 42 million votes for 7,500 ideas on its web site as meaningful for its brand, much the same way that friending clicks on Facebook are considered meaningful engagement.

There's that meaning word again. I wonder if it wouldn't be more meaningful if Pepsi elected to do something really hard and creatively challenging, and come up with a way to ask 42 million people to drink its soda pop?

Worse, its $20 million contribution to fund its social marketing campaign is a drop in the bucket compared to its $6.8 BILLION operating income last year. It's the cost of a half-dozen Super Bowl ads. Marketing budget chump change, not a terribly substantive corporate commitment. And throwing dollars at The Crowd to vote on isn't terribly philanthropic: the real, major issues facing Americans -- lack of health care, after-school programs, basics of nutrition -- don't even appear in most of the projects pitched for consideration.

Pepsi has no interest in doing good, but rather wants to appear to do good because it thinks all of its marketing alternatives are so bad.

It could be worse, of course. Pepsi could decide to pay millions to some numbnut starlet like it has in the past (and most likely will again). Even a badly conceived program as the Refresh Project is giving real money to real people to do real good.

But it's not marketing. And it's half-assed citizenship, at best. The challenge for brands isn't to embrace the idiocy of the latest fads like "meaning" marketing, but rather to rediscover the truisms of how to make their products and services meaningful to consumers.

Avoiding the question altogether isn't the same thing as finding an answer.

Added: 14th September 2010

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