summer / 2017

The magazine of branded content
How Pepsi uses
authentic storytelling to
engage with its audience
Juliet Stott
Pepsi talks about its partnership with EMPIRE & supporting emerging musical talent with Sound Drop
Juliet Stott
Aug 10, 2017

Pepsi is at the forefront of marketing and advertising innovation. Its unique collaboration with the TV hit show EMPIRE has pushed traditional editorial/advertising boundaries to their max. Pepsi has created seamless in-show integrations as part of EMPIRE series’ plot, along with digital content that has extended EMPIRE storylines in order to reach its audience authentically and within context.

Pepsi has teamed up with iHeartMedia, MTV and Shazam to launch “The Sound Drop,” a music platform that provides emerging artists with a stage to grow and connect with their fans. It is with this partnership that real life artists have had cameo appearances as themselves in EMPIRE, an example of life truly imitating art.

Here Content Magazine spoke to both Pepsi’s VP of Marketing, Chad Stubbs, and one of its agency partners Omnicom Media Group’s Content Collective President and Chief Content Office Claudia Cahill, about how the unique collaboration with EMPIRE came to fruition, why product placement within shows is now considered a “low-cost, low-touch” approach, and how to successfully connect custom content with commerce.

Content: You have recently renewed your successful partnership with EMPIRE for a second season – what made you decide to break away from just using 30-second TV ads/the traditional interruptive model to reach your audience?

Chad Stubbs, VP, Marketing, Pepsi™:
Our partnership with the hit show EMPIRE is a prime example of how brands can authentically engage with consumers in today’s fast-paced and often over-saturated media landscape. From the very beginning, Pepsi and EMPIRE felt like the perfect pairing with both brands having such passionate fans. We worked hand-in-hand with FOX to create some amazing programs together spanning from seamless in-show integrations as part of the series’ plot to digital content that extended EMPIRE storylines. Music has always been a passion point for Pepsi and what EMPIRE has done with music and how fans consume it, is mind-blowing.

There’s room for both traditional and non-traditional models when it comes to a brand’s advertising mix, and we’re proud of this award-winning, groundbreaking partnership.

How did the idea of incorporating Pepsi within a popular TV show come about? How was the decision made on which show to partner with? How did you sell the idea into Fox/the writers of the show?

Claudia Cahill, President, Chief Content Officer, Omnicom Media Group’s Content Collective:
One of the big reasons the Pepsi EMPIRE partnership was so seamlessly woven into the show’s narrative is because it was conceived by Ilene Chaiken, a head writer for EMPIRE and supported at the highest levels of FOX Entertainment. The script called for Jamal, a main character in the show, to have his first commercial endorsement deal. Pepsi was the brand that made the most sense to the show’s creators to play an authentic role in the program over multiple episodes. This top down approach is rare, allowing for the show’s creators to truly embrace Pepsi and the ancillary initiative that we created to support the linear television, scripted integration.

Why was it/is it important for the Pepsi brand to be depicted in an authentic story line, rather than say have the brand ‘placed’ within a show, which has been the way other brands have worked with film/tv before?
Claudia Cahill: Very simple answer—because the brand had a real creative reason to be there and added depth to the storyline. Granted the Pepsi EMPIRE partnership was to some degree, lightning in a bottle and a best-case scenario, our work at the Content Collective has always focused on creating meaningful and relevant connections between brands and entertainment properties that drive tangible business results. Product placement has become a tactic that is considered a low-cost, low-touch maintenance effort.

Your partnership with EMPIRE has been described as the first of its kind—you/they (the writers) have successfully blended fiction with reality—in the initial three episodes viewers saw Jamal become the face of Pepsi both in the show and in real life… what impact has this approach had on your brand? How are you measuring its success?
Chad Stubbs: The partnership between Pepsi and EMPIRE really was a first-mover in the industry, blending fiction and reality by bridging art, music and pop culture. We’re always looking for dynamic ways to bring our consumers closer to the things they love and EMPIRE is no exception.

Mobile and digital continue to be at the forefront of everything we do and this really came to life during EMPIRE’s third season when we introduced three fan-first digital and social extensions which served as complementary builds to the on-screen narrative. This content was available exclusively via Pepsi and EMPIRE platforms and included a nine-episode "EMERGE" social series; the launch of six limited-edition Pepsi EMPIRE mini-cans showcasing custom artwork created by artist Jon Moody via which fans could use Shazam to unlock behind-the-scenes content; and a first-ever EMPIRE musical tribute entitled “When Cookie Met Lucious, feat. Jamal.”

Pepsi’s partnership with EMPIRE has been described as a collision between content and commerce—how does this relationship benefit both viewers of the show, and the brand’s consumers?
Claudia Cahill: Ideally, a strategically conceived entertainment program like the Pepsi EMPIRE partnership, does successfully connect custom content with commerce by delivering value back to consumers. This value can manifest itself through exclusive content and experiences, limited-time product offers and multi-layered reasons to connect and share on social media. In totality, this value exchange with consumers can impact brand perception, equity and brand love.

You’ve recently signed a new deal with multiple partnerships—not only with EMPIRE, but with iHeartMedia, MTV and Shazam too. What benefit will this collaboration bring to the viewers and your consumers? How will this enhance their experience of your brand?
Chad Stubbs: We’re always looking for partners that will help tell our brand story and bring it to life with consumers in the most exciting and authentic way possible. As an example of this, Pepsi launched “The Sound Drop,” a music platform that provides emerging artists with a powerful stage to grow and connect with their fans, in partnership with iHeartMedia, Shazam and MTV.

“The Sound Drop” identifies the next generation of breaking artists and then heightens awareness by promoting the artist to millions of fans across the country through iHeartMedia's platforms. Shazam provides additional amplification through artist discovery and introduction, while Viacom Velocity, Viacom and MTV's integrated marketing and internal creative agency, creates and helps distribute content that tells each artist's inspirational story.

There is also a significant social component that leverages influencer networks and provides additional visibility through social media platforms. All of the on-air, mobile and social amplification will direct music lovers to the content, enabling them to discover more about the individual artists.

Pepsi has a long history of teaming up with famous music icons—Michael Jackson, Madonna, Britney Spears and Beyoncé to name a few—what’s the thinking behind your new venture Sound Drop, which supports/promotes emerging talent. And how does this complement your collaboration with EMPIRE?
Chad Stubbs: Music has and always will be part of Pepsi’s brand ethos, and we’re fortunate enough to collaborate with some of the most talented artists in the industry. “The Sound Drop” was created to help identify and support the next generation of breaking artists by providing them greater visibility, allowing them to share the stories that shaped them and connecting them with fans in a more meaningful way.

When it comes to our partnership with EMPIRE, it was a natural connection with Pepsi’s Sound Drop program. Rising pop songstress and Sound Drop artist Tinache made a cameo appearance on EMPIRE working alongside the character Jamal while he developed his musical tribute, a storyline that sparked on EMPIRE and came to life via social series “EMERGE.” Sound Drop artist Jidenna also appeared in the “EMERGE” series along with other favorite EMPIRE characters.

The introduction of Pepsi’s Sound Drop artists, who were playing themselves, was an example of life truly imitating art.

Pepsi is a big brand, with a big budget—what advice can you give to other brands looking to emulate your strategy/those looking for an alternative way to reach their audiences?
Chad Stubbs: We strive to put the consumer at the center of everything we do, and look to embrace risk and deploy disruptive technology to bring fans closer to the experiences they love. We’re constantly exploring new tactics so we’re authentically reaching consumers—it’s one of the hardest and most rewarding parts of our job. We’re also keenly focused on building talent with different backgrounds, expertise and passion areas, and putting them into an environment to work together to experiment and spark change.