Pepsi’s Long, Hot Summer

NEW YORK Michael Jackson’s hair catching fire during the filming of a Pepsi ad was long ago (1984).

However, the company’s affinity for all things pop culture remains top of mind. In fact, PepsiCo’s summer lineup includes everything from baseball stars with matinee good looks, sponsorship of the “biggest concert of the year,” talking cartoon donkeys, a soft drink inspired by a videogame and a team-up with the Transformers (which were popular right about the time the gloved one got too close to the pyrotechnics).

The strategy has served it well to date, said Darrell Jursa, president at Liquid Intelligence, Chicago. Because of its associations with pop culture at large, “Pepsi will always be perceived as the younger brand. You always have to think about ‘The choice of a new generation.’ It paved the path for many years. … Being No. 2 [in the category] you can do things more differently and more quickly. Coke tends to be more calculated and pop culture moves pretty fast,” he said.

What may be PepsiCo’s biggest push this summer will place it firmly on the “green” bandwagon. In the coming weeks, the company will unveil plans to reduce its carbon footprint and extend the environmentally friendly practices it already has embraced, per a source. The company’s annual shareholders meeting is May 2 in Plano, Texas.

Coca-Cola last week revealed plans to reduce energy and water consumption at its headquarters in Atlanta. In support of its environmental activations, PepsiCo will be one of the headline sponsors of the 24-hour “Live Earth” concert on July 7. Seven concerts in support of fighting global warming will be held on all seven continents. The U.S. leg of the mega-roster includes Kayne West, newly reunited Police and Smashing Pumpkins at Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. U.S. sponsors also include Microsoft, Stonyfield Farm and DaimlerChrysler’s Smart division.

Pepsi will flag the Live Earth event on cans and bottles as part of its strategy to change package designs more than 35 times this year. “Pepsi will help us reach millions and millions of people,” said Yusef Robb, rep for Live Earth, Los Angeles. “It’s great to see some of the world’s largest corporations underwrite an undertaking like ours.”

Sierra Mist Free gets the first call this week as it ties in with Shrek: The Third, per sources, which hits theaters May 18. TV ads will feature characters from the movie and continue the “It’s that refreshing” theme. Frito-Lay sister brand Cheetos is also on board with a limited-edition version of its salty snacks that will turn consumers’ mouths green. PepsiCo was also involved in the first two Shrek films. BBDO, New York, handles.

In May, PepsiCo will put the spotlight on Pepsi’s status as the official soft drink of Major League Baseball. This year, Johnny Damon (New York Yankees) and Joe Mauer (Minnesota Twins) will star in TV spots, also via BBDO, and p-o-p. Frito-Lay is MLB’s official snack chip. Both deals run through 2010.

In June, Mountain Dew will “Transform your summer” with a promotion tied into The Transformers movie, hitting theaters July 4. Director Michael Bay will play a hand in directing the ads, per a source. In August, Mountain Dew will align again with longtime marketing partner Microsoft Xbox to help launch the highly anticipated videogame Halo 3. Lead character Master Chief will appear on a Mountain Dew cherry-citrus in-and-out flavor along with the words “Game Fuel.”

Dew has been an Xbox partner since its launch in 2001, and such alliances have helped the brand “stay at the forefront of pop culture,” said Jursa.

On the new product front, Diet Pepsi Max will hit stores in June. Targeting 25- to 34-year-olds, this zero-calorie soft drink will have extra caffeine and ginseng. BBDO is lead agency.

PepsiCo drastically reduced its media spend last year for its beverage portfolio, from $721 million in 2005 to $560 million, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus. Still, “PepsiCo tries to maintain its iconic status by latching onto whatever icons are in the pantheon of popular culture at the time,” said Robert Thompson, professor of TV and popular culture at Syracuse University. “Let’s face it, a soft drink is a soft drink. They’re trying to sell a lifestyle.”