Open source and the future of Super Bowl advertising

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As we approach the most anticipated day of the year for brand managers, Super Bowl Sunday, I thought it appropriate to comment on one of the biggest pieces of news coming out the branding and marketing circles in recent weeks: in a bold move, Pepsi – historically one of the largest spenders of Super Bowl advertising dollars – has discontinued its investment in commercial advertising during what could arguably be the most-watched television event ever.

However, I am not as interested in this decision as I am in how Pepsi will be reallocating its advertising budget, and how this might signal the early signs of even the largest and most traditional companies dabbling in (and even embracing) open source models of business.

Via the recently announced Pepsi Refresh Project (, Pepsi will be investing in a large scale crowdsourcing and cause marketing initiative that will award $20 million in grants for community improvement projects. From the website:

“We're looking for people, businesses, and non-profits with ideas that will have a positive impact. Look around your community and think about how you want to change it.”

Anyone can submit an idea. Anyone can vote on their favorites. Each month, Pepsi will award up to 30 grants ranging in size from $5K to $250K to those ideas voted for most by the site's visitors.

Admittedly, this is not a completely original idea. A host of companies, from Target and P&G to Chase Bank and Starbucks , have launched similar crowdsourcing initiatives. Mountain Dew, another PepsiCo brand, recently launched its DEWmocracy “collective intelligence" project to develop its new projects, and Vitaminwater (owned by the Coca-Cola Company) released a Flavorcreator app on Facebook to crowdsource ideas for new flavors.

To many, it's not even a particularly good idea, and these companies have a lot to learn about truly opening up their processes. Crowdsourcing projects are pretty trendy right now, and an online voting contest can hardly be classified as an open source effort. You don't have to look too far to find reactions against crowdsourcing, at least in the way that many marketing organizations are utilizing the tactic today, and I am certainly not writing this post in advocation of crowdsourcing as a model of open source development.

(In fact, the long-term effects of crowdsourcing on the health of and affinity for a brand is a concern to be explored in whole other post ... but here's a great take on it to get started).

What I do think is noteworthy is that a major consumer goods company with highly valuable brand assets on the line is forfeiting the most traditional of advertising models in favor of a decidedly riskier strategy, placing the fate of its brands if not completely in the hands of its users, at least closer to it than ever before. I (optimistically) choose to believe that it represents some early shifts in long-held beliefs and practices in that industry, signaling that even the oldest dogs are willing to learn some new tricks.

What do you think consumer brands can learn and apply from the open development model within the technology industry? How are their current efforts flawed? And do you believe that these early initiatives represent an evolution within consumer branding towards a more open, collaborative model?

Oh, and who are you pulling for in the Super Bowl?

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gajownik's picture

That true open source is based on meaningful collaboration and interaction. Not just a vote on a website. You've got all these people in one place...encourage them to talk to each other! Exchange ideas. Not just log a vote.

Tony ODriscoll's picture

I think Pepsi is onto something here. In the past organizations who used crowdsourced competitions to create an add for a product have had varying degrees of success. GM learned the hard way with the Chevy Tahoe advert competition. Ford learned a bit from that with their Blogger based Festiva campaign, but in the end neither IMHO managed to get the brand attention they desired.

By redirecting funding that would have traditionally been focused on promoting the product towards creating an ecosystem focused on a cause, I think Pepsi is being AUTHENTIC about demonstrating it's commitment to the improving communities.

It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.

cgrams's picture
Open Source Champion

I don't know...the money is certainly authentic, and it looks like this program will do some real good, but something still bugs me... the whole program doesn't feel all that authentic from where I sit... so I did some looking around.

In the FAQ they reference that the project is put on by a company called "Young America," and looking at their website, I could tell where I got the inauthentic vibe. Check their page on engagement marketing:

"At Young America, we provide measureable, strategic solutions and tactical services to engage your customers throughout their entire life cycle; from acquisition, continuing to growth and finally onto retention."

So I think Pepsi is "engaging" me with the hope of eventually "retaining" me. It's a marketing activity-- one with good motives, mind you-- but it is still a marketing activity as opposed to an authentic charitable activity.

Vil's picture

To me, there's a deficit of trust, to borrow a phrase. I'm skeptical at best when a company announces an initiative like this, because they've been closed up for so long. Like Joshua said, collaboration and interaction is the base for openness, but I don't feel like investing myself if I get the impression that the company is after my wallet. I think that's the biggest obstacle to a business trying a more open source approach.

j_q_adams's picture
Open Minded

Thanks Vil (and Chris). I agree with both of you. I didn't intend for my post to be an endorsement of Pepsi's philanthropy -- I've been working in marketing too long to have a good understanding of their underlying motives (ROI) -- or even about how this project is a good example of open source principles at work. Rather, I just found it interesting that a major company like Pepsi is "bucking the trend" and deviating from the very traditional Super Bowl advertising model. Rather than discuss the merits of this initiative on its own, I'd rather explore what this might mean for the future of marketing & advertising. Can it be correlated to the rise of openness in business? And what role can open principles play in the future of advertising?


As Red Hat's resident Brand Manager, John Adams strives to both protect and advance the Red Hat brand every day.

Vil's picture

I think businesses attempting initiatives like this one will cause a rise of openness in business. I am skeptical about this one, but other companies may feel the need to adopt initiatives similar to it to stay competitive. I think it could lead to a higher level of collaboration, like I said in my other comment, and more meritocracy. These principles could help companies to better satisfy customer demands.

jhibbets's picture

Saw the first commercials for this on TV this evening.

Blacked Eyed Peas jams too!