Today's news was dominated by reporting on global issues like war in the Middle East and political gamesmanship in the U.S. but one story that really popped in today's Wall Street Journal was Valerie Bauerlein's thorough examination of Pepsi's Refresh Project, in which the soda corporation offered large grants to causes voted on by their customers.
Unlike most programs that count on an audience performing an action, Pepsi's leaders found themselves with too much interest - and Bauerlein uncovered a fascinating study of how a lighthearted contest can be hijacked and transformed against the wishes of the sponsor.
With a promise of $20 million in donations for "refreshing ideas that change the world," Pepsi's Refresh Project drew rabid competition for the prize money—perhaps too rabid.
Community organizers, health interest groups and religious organizations quickly formed alliances that dominated voting. Those alliances picked nominees each month and asked supporters to vote as many times as the contest rules would allow. And when they won, some small groups and grass-roots organizations howled with objections, saying the alliances went against the spirit of the competition.
What's also fascinating is that although the Refresh Project is among the most successful online cause marketing campaigns ever undertaken by a corporation, it didn't help Pepsi fight off dissappointing performance in its core business of selling soda.
Marketing experts quoted in the story argue that the promotion wasn't tied tightly enough to product - instead focusing on softer brand enhancement - so even though 76 million votes were cast, it didn't move the needle on sales.
Bauerlein raises a host of questions for marketers, PR people and philanthropists alike to ponder in her story, while at the same time illustrating the business issue facing the single company.
It's a great story that breaks new ground in covering the social media trend.