Empowered Consumers Push Brands to Cut Loose

Three big campaigns in the pipeline right now are testing the new rules of marketing in a conversation-centric world: Pepsi’s “Refresh Everything,” Domino’s “Pizza Turnaround” and Taco Bell’s “Drive-Thru Diet.”

All are being hailed as social media innovations and harbingers of the death of traditional advertising. More accurately, they are examples of big brands scrambling to cope with consumer empowerment and a fractured media landscape.

Pepsi’s “Refresh Everything” campaign is the most ambitious. At the very least it is a great stunt. The company made the news by deciding to not run Super Bowl ads. That announcement probably generated more media exposure than running Super Bowl ads would have. Beyond the stunt, the campaign is a brave experiment. Pepsi is gambling that distributing $20 million across thousands of bloggers/activists will gain more media exposure than $20 million spent during Super Bowl. They’re gambling on the social media “network effect.” And they are gambling that “do-gooders” will not be embarrassed to attach their ideas to a big corporate brand. We think Pepsi could have given the campaign more of a traditional media push. Regardless, if it works, Pepsi will have succeeded in killing two birds with one stone – they will effectively counter their “big bad global brand” image and multiply their media investment. What is notable about this campaign is that it is all about mission and has nothing to do with product.

Domino’s “Pizza Turnaround,” on the other hand, it is all about the product. It’s the story of how the company changed its standard pizza formula in response to customer feedback. No mission, but very conversation-centric. The launch video struck just the right note. It’s lighter and less ambitious than the world-changing Pepsi campaign, but then again we are talking about soda pop and fast food here. Because it comes off as honest, responsive and relevant to the product, this campaign is likely to connect. It will drive reconsideration and trial. Whether the “new” product can live up to the promise, well … Regardless, as an example of a good conversation-centric marketing campaign, it’s a hot four-cheese success!

Finally, the Taco Bell “Drive-Thru Diet” campaign. Hmm… Rather than leverage the conversation to address the company’s real product issues, like Domino’s is trying, or focus on a mission, like Pepsi, Taco Bell is attempting to use an integrated media strategy to do that old fashioned marketing trick – sell us a counter-factual pile of beans. They’re going to try and get us to believe that stuffing down fatty foods in our cars can help us lose weight. What? Who is going to buy that? I can believe that a Subway lettuce sandwich is a better choice than a greasy burger. But can I really believe that a Taco Bell “diet” will make me skinny?

Yet, despite the critique, I have to applaud all three efforts.

We are living in interesting times. And if there is one truth in our new conversation-centric marketing world, it is that brands need to be fearless and try new things. Cut the strings of caution! Experiment. Even if Taco Bell customers don’t lose weight, Domino’s doesn’t deliver and Pepsi falls flat, there’s little downside. That’s the irony of consumer empowerment. Brands have lost a lot of authority, but they’re no longer expected to be perfect either.