Pepsi’s social media-backed community change effort, dubbed “Refresh Project,” is off to a good start. So far, the soft beverage giant has funded more than 100 projects and given back approximately $5 million to local communities, according to Ana Maria Irazabal, marketing director for Pepsi. With new entries and winners announced every month, the brand is on track to hit its goal of $20 million in grant money this year. “Refresh Project” is also helping Pepsi expands its already massive presence on Facebook, Twitter, and other social nets. The initiative has sparked human interaction and is affecting change in communities, Irazabal said. In an interview with Brandweek, Irazabal chatted about the project’s results thus far, and how it’s creating buzz on social networks.
Brandweek: Pepsi’s “Refresh Project” expects to award more than $20 million in community grants this year. Are you on track to meet your goals?
Ana Maria Irazabal: So far, we’ve awarded 127 grants through the national program, but we also have a lot of partnerships with retail customers like Safeway and Supervalu. These are pilot programs we’re running with the stores and their shoppers and also with our bottlers at the local level. We hope to give more than 300 grants through the national program and another 300 through the pilot programs. We already have winners that are talking to each other to see how their funds can be more powerful if they put them to work together. What can they learn from each other as they get into this process to make their ideas happen? We have a whole backstage organization that is actually supporting the winners to make their ideas a reality. We aren’t holding their hands per se, as these are very driven people, but we’re making sure we have the right support for them.
BW: How innovative are these new ideas? Name some that stand out.
AI: The beauty of every single idea is the simplicity of the idea. People are [tackling] single issues that affect their communities. It’s consumer insight. “What does my community need more of and how can I help improve it?” One of my favorite ones is—and there are so many, so it’s very hard to pick one—we have this guy called Calvin [Cannon] from the [Clothe a N.A.K.E.D Prom Date] organization. He gets tuxedos for good dudes to go to prom. He’s enabling them to have a real good prom, and many times, these guys are coming from foster or single mother homes. It’s very relevant for youths. It’s lighthearted, it’s fun and it talks about [helping others] in the Pepsi spirit. I’m proud of every idea we’re supporting, but it’s the simplicity of the idea that makes it so innovative. You would never have thought that one simple thing like that could bring about a big change in the community.
BW: “Education” is one of the most popular categories for submissions. Why?
AI: The ideas that are coming in are for the things that we need the most and with the economic crisis right now, people are really concerned about kids’ education and how can they make sure they can continue to provide them with the best. That’s why we have so many ideas centered on really improving schools, getting new equipment, funding, microphones, etc. It’s one of [consumers’] fundamental concerns right now. Kids are the foundation of this country and if our education system is not the best, we can’t go anywhere.
But consumers are also very creative. Education has a slight edge, but it’s not overtaking any of the other categories. Neighborhoods, health and education are very, very much in line and then there are the other three—the planet, food and shelter, and arts and culture—they’re at a second tier, but they’re not very far away.
BW: The campaign centers on the voting, sharing and submitting of ideas. What impact has this had on the brand’s social media presence thus far?
AI: We saw two things happen in the social media presence. The success has been overwhelming. We have more than doubled our Facebook fans since we started the campaign. We have more than 24,000 Twitter fans, more than 60,00 tweets and 100 [Twitter] million impressions today. Everyone is asking people for votes, for support. Before we did this campaign, if you typed in the Twitter hashtag #PepsiRefresh in the search bar, you would find a new tweet every five minutes, but now, the amount of tweets you see coming in at any minute, you don’t have time to read them all. It’s a platform that’s self-feeding. People want to make this change happen.
BW: Any other interesting insights or findings Pepsi’s learned from the campaign thus far?
AI: When you [help] feed a consumer insight and [tap into the] cultural zeitgeist, you have something really powerful on your hands. You also need to let go of control at some level . . . This idea of crowdsourcing ideas, of giving power to the people, I think it’s [the new way of] marketing in 2010, but it really does work and yes, we’ll apply it again to future campaigns. The other very important thing is, the Pepsi Refresh Project is a platform, but at the end of the day, what we are doing is, we are awarding the grants and we are enabling connections. It’s having a catalytic effect on people who are actually embracing these organizations. So, we’re not only benefiting the person who received the grant. We’re benefiting the people who are the recipients of the outcome of that idea. With schools, for instance, it’s not just one classroom that’s benefited. It’s all the kids who will be able to go to that classroom. And there have been people who have worked so hard to get this money that others have stepped in and matched the money they received.
BW: Anything else?
AI: We want people to be aware that every time you drink a Pepsi, you are actually supporting the Pepsi Refresh Project and ideas that are going to move this country forward. We may be the first to do something like this, but hopefully, we’re not the last.