Mendoza School of Business

A Teaching Moment: Professors Evaluate Pepsi Refresh Project

Published: October 8, 2012 / Author: Natalie Zmuda

The following is an excerpt from an article in Ad Age that quotes Adjunct Marketing Professor Carol Phillips about the launch of the Pepsi Refresh Project. To read the entire article visit: A Teaching Moment: Professors Evaluate Pepsi Refresh Project.

In 2010, Pepsi made headlines with the launch of the Pepsi Refresh Project. The first-of-its-kind experiment in social media invested the brand in community-building projects. It was a pivotal test case for other brands trying to navigate an ad-cluttered, cynic-rich marketing landscape.

Originally slated to be a year-long marketing effort, the program garnered early attention when Pepsi sat out the Super Bowl for the first time in 23 years. Ultimately the program lasted two years, though it saw tweaks to the grants and voting process in the second year.

The program also suffered its fair share of criticism, with allegations of cheating and concerns that it didn’t connect closely enough with sales. Still, industry watchers almost universally agree that it was a bold experiment and a harbinger of things to come. Pepsi, for its part, says the program was intended to be a long-term equity play.


Carol Phillips: I do think Pepsi Refresh is a case for the textbooks, but not in the way we expected two years ago. As a first mover, Pepsi took a real risk and while it didn’t necessarily pay off the way they thought it would, it has helped further the conversation about the role of purpose in brand marketing. I credit them with reading the trends accurately and addressing them with an aggressive program. In retrospect, something more incremental might have been a better strategy, but who knew?

For those of us that were watching, we thought it would be a major shift in the way companies connected with their consumers. If it had proven to build Pepsi’s business, it would have been a model for other companies, and we would have seen a lot more Refresh programs. But I haven’t seen a lot of copycat programs, because it’s hard to prove that it had an impact on customers and how they felt about the product. It’s hard to be first.


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