Why Celebrities Want to Be in PepsiCo’s Ads

A 'symbiotic relationship' with stars like Beckham, Beyoncé and Jordan

Exactly 50 years ago yesterday, the Frito-Lay snack brand (maker of Fritos, Cheetos and Ruffles) merged with Pepsi-Cola (the famous soda) to form PepsiCo. The merger was big news in 1965, but few predicted the corporate colossus it would become. Today, PepsiCo's 22 brands each generate more than $1 billion in annual sales. But if there's a single reason consumers recognize PepsiCo's brands, it's because of its ads. PepsiCo introduced jingles impossible to extricate from one's head ("muncha-buncha Fritos go with lunch!"), and from Day 1 signed the biggest celebrities of the day as endorsers, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for Tropicana to Madonna and Michael Jackson for Pepsi. Adweek got both of PepsiCo's global CMOs on the phone for this exclusive chat about five decades of marketing.

Ram Krishnan 

Adweek: Celebrities in your spots often clown around—like Elton John as the Pepsi King in 2012's Super Bowl spot. Is goofing off an enticement for them to sign?
Lowden: Celebrities feel like they can let their hair down in our advertising. We bring out a side of them that they can't often display. They're always on stage or on the field and they have to perform, so advertising gives them a chance to get into a side that they haven't normally shown.

It wasn't long ago that celebs (and fans) viewed endorsements as "selling out." Have you had to contend with that issue?
Lowden: If they're just a poster child for us, then that's a problem. But we give them a platform they normally wouldn't have, let them show a different side of their personality. And we get them into the creativity.

Like, how?
Lowden: We worked with Beyoncé recently, and she was involved in the script creativity, the style of the production, how it looked and how it worked.
 

Simon Lowden 

In 1984, PepsiCo signed Michael Jackson for a reported $5 million. But Jackson was on top of the world in 1984. He didn't have to dance for Pepsi. Why did he?
Lowden: He did it because he wanted to put himself in a place where he wouldn't be expected to be seen. He was huge, performing in front of thousands. But PepsiCo gave him a platform to be associated with a brand that has a reach in over 188 markets in the world.

So you're arguing that brand endorsements expand and magnify celebrity status today instead of eroding it.
Krishnan: Yes. It gives them a stage to define who they are, which they might not be able to do with their music or the stuff that they're working on.

Ten years ago, Doritos did "Crash the Super Bowl," which showed how far user-generated content could go. Was there any nervousness about buying 30 seconds for $4 million and airing amateur work?
Krishnan: Completely. If you'd told me that we'd be giving consumers a chance to be on the world's biggest stage, I'd think you were kidding me. But consumers want to be involved with a brand. Anyone with a smartphone is a creative these days.

Gatorade remixed 1991's "Be Like Mike" tune this year. I've always wondered: Did Michael Jordan drink Gatorade before he signed his deal with you?
Lowden: We know he used it as part of his daily routine. Authenticity leads to credibility. He loved that song. He used it. It became him. He was incredibly supportive of us bringing it back.

Celebrity endorsing has frequently involved people on the downward slope of their careers. PepsiCo signs them at the peak of their fame—which can't be cheap. Is one of the takeaways here that a brand has to be prepared to spend big to make a marketing splash?
Lowden: We get them as they rise, and it's not just about a check. It's about providing a platform for stars to grow their popularity. David Beckham was a soccer player for one season in the U.K. He became an icon because of the work we did with him at Pepsi. It becomes a symbiotic relationship.

Krishnan: We have well-loved brands with a huge footprint, and that's the attraction. Celebrities come to us, not the other way around. Together, we create a cultural moment. That ad does something both for us and for them.