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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Pepsi REFRESH: The Empowerment of a New Generation

I was very excited to hear about the Pepsi REFRESH project when it was announced at the beginning of the year.  CEO Indra Nooyi’s decision to allocate marketing dollars to a community-reinvestment effort deserves great applause as it stands as a prime example of progressive, conscientious 21st centruy leadership.  By shifting Super Bowl advertising dollars to philanthropy, Pepsi is making a smart investment in marketing and in communities. 

The program is simple.  Pepsi REFRESH invites anyone to submit a grant proposal for a project – all proposals are then judged by the Pepsi’s online community, from their dedicated Facebook fans and Twitter followers, and beyond.  Grants of $5,000 to $250,000 are awarded to dozens of applicants every month. 

This project is exciting on multiple levels.  First, it marks an encouraging departure from a dated era where corporate philanthropy and community empowerment was seen as a “nice-to-do,” only done to enhance a firm’s public image.  Over the past generation, corporate philanthropy has been impacted by Milton Friedman’s view that business is a “profit maximizing” entity, rather than an institution chartered by society as a steward of its financial and social well-being.  But now, the idea that philanthropy is better left to shareholders is fading away – and I am glad to see Pepsi reinforcing a new ideal.

Second, Pepsi Refresh represents a marketing innovation.  Indra Nooyi has long been at the forefront of progressive leadership, but green-lighting this project shows that she and her team at Pepsico are committed to exploring new ways of engaging customers.  Instead of bombarding viewers with Super Bowl advertisements, Pepsi is seeking out their customers where they live – offline and online – and delivering value to their communities.   Millions of Pepsi customers are engaging in social media and connecting online, actively seeking company engagement on this level. People want companies that seek out their advice and ideas, companies that talk with them in the way they want to communicate.

Third, this project is an investment in the next generation of leaders.  The Pepsi REFRESH project empowers community activists, students, small business owners, and non-profit overseers in an unprecedented way – with no-strings-attached investments in their projects and complete corporation-backed empowerment.  Not only is Pepsi providing funding for these projects, they’ve left the decision-making in the hands of the masses.  Votes online will dictate what project – what up-and-coming leader – receives funding, not votes around a boardroom.

The Pepsi REFRESH project represents a monumental effort to be a trend-setter by redefining corporate marketing and customer engagement.  If Pepsi is “the choice of a new generation,” then Pepsi REFRESH may well be “the empowerment of a new generation.”