Jan 312011
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What’s better than reaching more than 100 million viewers during last year’s Super Bowl?

For Pepsi, it could be 6,000 football fans during a high school game on Friday night in central Texas. Or a group of parents who wanted a new playground in their Las Vegas neighborhood.

That is the bet that PepsiCo made when it walked away from spending $20 million on television spots for Pepsi during last year’s Super Bowl and plowed the money into a monthly online contest for people to submit their ideas and compete for votes to win grants.

Withdrawing from the Super Bowl for the first time in 23 years and giving the money away for the Pepsi Refresh Project was considered a gamble by the beverage maker as it explored the potential of social media and cause-related marketing to make a difference in its business. But the company, despite accusations that some winners used questionable voting tactics, says it was a huge success and plans to expand it beyond the United States this year.

More than $20 million in grants, ranging from $5,000 to $250,000, has been distributed to about 400 winners so far, including $25,000 for new uniforms for the Cedar Park High School band in Cedar Park, Tex., which took its campaign to win votes to Friday night football games. In Las Vegas, a new playground opened last week with a $25,000 grant won in September.

“This was not a corporate philanthropy effort,” said Shiv Singh, head of digital for PepsiCo Beverages America. “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. That was a big bet. No one has done it on this scale before.”

As Pepsi had hoped, competitors have turned to their personal networks onFacebook and Twitter to gain support for their ideas, extending the Pepsi brand and its do-good message. Nearly 19 percent of the 77 million votes have been cast through Facebook. On Twitter, participants were urged to use the hash tag “#PepsiRefresh,” and they did.

B. Bonin Bough, who oversees social media for PepsiCo, said that the power of social platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, and blogs allowed this program to work and have reach. “But most important is the power of these platforms to help individuals build communities to help support their efforts and ideas,” he said. “These communities will exist long after and are a testament to the type of social impact programs like this can have.”

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