June 18th, 2009

Pepsi Uses “Influencers” to Launch a New Product

By Patricia Odell
PROMO Magazine

Can delivering cold cans of a new soda to a group of friends hanging out at a backyard pool party really set off a wave of word-of-mouth chatter about the product that can generate true interest—and sales—in a brand?

Pepsi is trying to find out.

The company launched a new permanent flavor in its lemon-line lineup, Sierra Mist Ruby Splash, and is using a select group of “influencers” to help spread the word. The influencers are known lovers of lemon lime beverages and have deep and robust relationships within their worlds. They fit the demographic of a Sierra Mist loyalist: aged 18 to 34, musicians, skateboards shop owners, people who love to throw backyard barbeques and other free-wheeling young people.

The tag line for the campaign, “Liquid Sunshine,” further illuminates the sunny personalities and lifestyles of these influencers.

Finding the right influencers is the key. Grow Marketing, the non-traditional marketing and publicity company handling the program, identified 30 “in-market coordinators” through its proprietary network of more than 500 people. Those coordinators—10 each located in Raleigh, NC, Los Angeles and Minneapolis—were then asked to identify the influencers, who take a look at their social calendars and incorporate Sierra Mist Ruby Splash bashes into already planned events.

“The coordinators are people who fit different profiles, run in different circles and are deeply connected to different groups, like the college crowd or mom network,” says Gabrey Means, a founder of Grow Marketing. “They run within these different groups and have deep networks of friends and colleagues. They help us build the proprietary list of the right influencers to share the product with.”

One influencer, for example, is a musician, who hosted a backyard jam session for 20 friends. A crew arrived and dropped off ice-cold cans of Sierra Mist Ruby Splash, branded sunglasses, misters and car fresheners with a Ruby Splash scent. The parties are considered more than just places to get product into consumers’ hands, they are considered brand experiences.

“It’s not just about let me taste it and it’s over,” Erika Priestley, associate marketing manager for Pepsi said. “It’s about developing a deeper relationship with those folks.”

She said the parties induce trial and complete the conversation with a push to retail—guests are given coupons.

Another influencer, the owner of the Rider Skate Board Shop, hosted an outdoor movie night to debut a new surf film. A professional poker player invited his group of friends to celebrate his one-year anniversary in his place. A young professional, who attends weekly softball games, distributed Sierra Mist Ruby Splash to the players. A student held a backyard BBQ and pool party to celebrate graduation. And an actress brought Sierra Mist Ruby Splash on set to the cast and crew.

“We deliver ice cold products when and wherever they want it,” Means said. “We show up and bring a great brand experience.”

Priestley personally attended some of the events. In June, she flew to Raleigh, NC, and visited six shops, an art festival, a pool party and a barbeque. At the influencer parties she introduced herself, asked the host how the parties were going and chatted with guests.

“Overall, the response was positive all around,” she said.

About 300 of these mini parties—ranging in size from 16 to 45 people—will have taken place during the time frame of the program—May through the end of June.

Also part of the program, 45 custom-designed branded refrigerators have been placed in lifestyle venues where the target consumer prefers to shop, like sneaker and bike stores and surf shops. Customers walk in, are offered a cold Ruby Splash and can stroll around the store sipping on the free soda as they shop.

Priestley made a few stops in these venues as well and asked customers what they thought about the beverage as a complement to their shopping.

“It’s important for us to see how these programs are working, especially something that is not super traditional,” she said. “By listening, we can make the program more robust and make other adjustments if necessary.”

Pepsi determines its ROI on the program through both qualitative and quantitative measurements including field research—it commissions a research company to conduct key metrics and performance trackers within the markets—syndicated data, sales and coupon redemption across both Ruby Splash and Sierra Mist.

“We certainly understand the value of getting to folks in a place where they feel comfortable,” Priestley said. “They are more likely to feel comfortable trying Ruby Splash in an environment they’re comfortable in. Having the brand be there for them in key areas of their life is a reflection that this is a brand that gets them.”

And while the influencer program is a key component, the overall marketing includes traditional aspects as well, including TV spots, radio, banner ads, a presence on MySpace, P-O-P and a mass sampling effort.

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