Pepsi Hopes to Energize Soccer Fans With Star Power and a Viral Challenge

The brand's ad push aims to kick off a #PepsiCanBalance craze

Manchester City
Manchester City's Raheem Sterling appears alongside fellow soccer stars Lionel Messi, Mo Salah and Paul Pogba. Pepsi
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Soccer is the biggest sport in the world, but for a few reasons has always lagged in the United States. Lately, however, attitudes toward soccer have been changing as the MLS expands rapidly into new cities with owners who can poach European stars on the tail ends of their primes.

Pepsi is capitalizing on those changing attitudes with a new campaign for the UEFA Champions League that features some of the biggest soccer stars in the world. The spot, “Play Never Stops,” featuring Pepsi’s tagline “Es Lo Que Quiero” (“That’s What I Like”), stars Lionel Messi, Mo Salah, Raheem Sterling and Paul Pogba all fighting over a can of Pepsi.

“We really just wanted to celebrate the fans, the aficionados, who are just unapologetically passionate about football,” said Esperanza Teasdale, a vp and general manager at PepsiCo. “It’s hitting that passion point, especially for the Hispanic consumer, who just truly loves football and is so excited for the Champions League.”

The ad’s creative approach is a somewhat common one in reaching soccer fans. The quick action, bright colors and electronic music have been used from brands ranging from Puma to Itaú. It’s a proven model, especially on digital platforms. Itaú’s ad from the 2018 World Cup has been viewed more than 50 million times on YouTube.

Focusing on social platforms was a big part of this campaign. In addition to that main spot, Pepsi also filmed quick pieces of content for the player’s social media. By filming unique content made for social, Pepsi was able to make these videos feel less like an ad and more true to the player’s authentic online persona.

“We had to create other ways to engage people [beyond the main spot],” said Teasdale. “The can balance is hopefully, finger’s crossed, that kind of sticky cultural bomb that will reach our multidimensional consumers wherever they are.”

Best known for the bottle flip challenges that were popular on platforms like YouTube and TikTok, these types of prompts can take off as other creators put unique twists on them. There’s no guarantee the #PepsiCanBalance challenge becomes the next bottle flip, though Elf Cosmetics pulled off a substantial win with its subtly branded “Eyes.Lips.Face.” TikTok meme.

Having famous players with huge followings kick off the challenge will clearly give the brand a leg up. (Mo Salah and Pogba have nearly 20 million Twitter followers between them.) But ad-adverse young creators might resist the clearly branded challenge.

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While the challenge, so far, doesn’t quite qualify as a viral sensation, the #PepsiCanBalance hashtag has been used on more than 2,000 Instagram posts. Much of the engagement with the challenge on Instagram seems to be connected not to the ad’s star athletes but to global pop group Now United, which has pushed out related sponsored content on several of its international channels.

The brand remains optimistic about both the challenge and the larger campaign behind it.

“The idea is to leverage digital media that’s contextually relevant for the people we are reaching,” Teasdale said. “Having the ads in a place where it makes sense for our audience is an important piece of the strategy.”

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Mitch Reames is a freelance writer based in southern Oregon. A 2017 graduate of the University of Oregon school of journalism and communications, Reames covers a wide range of industry topics including creativity, agencies, brands, esports and more.