Pepsi Refresh, You Fooled Me
February 03, 2011
Over the past twelve months, the nonprofit sector has watched Pepsi hand out hundreds of thousands of dollars each month as part of its Refresh Project, which was launched with the $20 million it would have spent on advertising during last year's Super Bowl.
Recently, Pepsi announced that it would stage the competition again in 2011 and would also introduce it in China and parts of Latin America. At the same time, a Wall Street Journal article over the weekend revealed that the company is revamping the project in light a number "of complaints of vote-rigging and other irregularities," including the formation of "informal alliances" by community organizers, health interest groups, and religious organizations. In response to the complaints, the company plans to eliminate the $250,000 grant category, which seemed to generate the largest share of irregularities; reduce from ten to five the number of causes for which people can vote in a twenty-four hour period; eliminate the environment and health categories; and implement a lottery system to select the charities that will compete each month.
Pepsi -- which has seen declining beverage sales for a decade -- plans to promote the new-and-improved project on Pepsi bottles and cans, and will run a bottle-cap promotion that rewards an undisclosed number of winners with up to a hundred votes.
In a recent New York Times article, Shiv Singh, head of digital for PepsiCo Americas Beverages, said that the Refresh Project was "not a corporate philanthropy effort. This was using brand dollars with the belief that when you use these brand dollars to have consumers share ideas to change the world, the consumers will win, the brand will win, and the community will win...."
I don't buy it.
I understand that for-profit companies are in the business of selling. Let's face it, without a net profit, there would be no money for a company's charitable efforts. I also understand that, because of their size and the absence of a formal application process, the grants being awarded through the Refresh Project are different from traditional corporate philanthropy efforts. But now that everyone has witnessed its powerful appeal, isn't it time to treat the $20 million project more like a CSR effort and less like a branding initiative? And that would include, as Rachel Bellow and Suzanne Muchin of ROI Ventures suggested in a PhilanTopic post earlier this week, "meaningful, 'custom designed' metrics for success that are specifically meaningful to the company, its actions, and its scale of investment."
What do you think? Should the food and beverage giant be doing more to align the project with its own CSR goals? Or is that asking too much of these kinds of crowdsourced popularity contests?
-- Regina Mahone