Social media is like Narnia, a place where animals talk, magic is common, and good battles evil victoriously.

In January 2010, for the first time in 23 years, Pepsi cancelled its annual Super Bowl advertising and joined the social media marketing hysteria by launching their much-hyped “Pepsi Refresh Project“. In Super Bowl ads from 1999 to 2009, Pepsi spent over $142 million to encourage consumers to drink the Pepsi brand. The company was the second-biggest spender on the event behind Anheuser-Busch InBev. So abandoning its commitment to legacy advertising in favor of a hip, new and expensive social media program was considered a bold move, a real game-changer.

Pepsi endorsed one particular internet channel and it was social. Users would be ”engaged”, people would flock to ”like” Pepsi over Coke, and twitterati were recruited to tout the virtues of Pepsico products by hashtagging the shit out of #DietPepsiRocks. It all sounded so nice and progressive, like putting manure in your gastank.

Classic social networks are like echo chambers populated by self-proclaimed experts in this field who happen to be, as Peter Shankman recently pointed out, often young idealists or deluded zealots without any business sense. But Pepsi saw the light. No more TV in 2010 for their flagship brand in the fight for soft-drink supremacy against archrival Coca Cola. A massive $20m dollars we allocated to promote this pure-play social campaign, boost sales and grow market share in the US. Millions more were deployed to support the initiative. So Twitter’s servers were lubed up. Zuckerman was überconfident. Social media was pregnant with anticipation and promise and the ad industry held its breath. Pepsi was geared up to make a splash.

But did the gamble pay off? No, it did not. For the first time ever, Pepsi-Cola’s trademark brand dropped from its perennial second place ranking among American soft drinks to number three. Actual campaign data now shows what we few, proud, zig-when-they-zag internet marketeers foresaw a year ago: social media is a dawg yo. Behold the numbers. The Refresh Project achieved remarkable success and did pretty much everything a social media program is expected to: Some 80 million votes were registered, a whopping 5.5 million “likes” on the Pepsi Facebook page. More than 120,000 twitter followers. The only thing it failed to do was sell Pepsi. Say what? Yes, in other words, it was an impressive performance of emply clanging noise, a carnival of cymbals celebrating the charlatan king of social media. The company benched advertising for its beverages in 2010 as it pursued the “Pepsi Refresh Project”, but since that time, its flagship brand has been surpassed by Diet Coke in terms of share of the U.S. soft-drink market. Pepsi junked online social media and quietly returned its beverages to the 2011 Super Bowl telecast. Massimo d’Amore, chief executive of PepsiCo Beverages Americas confirmed the fiasco and called for a change in their marketing strategy: “We need television to make the big, bold statement…”

So Pepsi paid $20m dollars to find out that social media is like porn—a fun yet senseless distraction from real work. Not to mention a poor substitute for proper marketing. Lessons learned? Coke is it.

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