IWNY – Message on a Bottle: PepsiCo and Stickybits Crowdsource the UPC

Tuesday afternoon’s Internet Week NY headquarters program closed with a presentation featuring PepsiCo and its partner in a new social media venture titled PepsiCo Presents: Unlocking the Power of the Barcode.  Representatives from the joint marketing effort discussed the pilot program in which Stickybits would use their platform to allow Pepsi consumers to scan their products’ barcodes with their mobile phones and then comment in a crowd-sourced discussion forum, almost like a wiki describing where the beverage or food item came from, how animals used in its production were treated, how environmental or labor issues were treated in the warehouses between production and consumption, and so on.

PepsiCo undertook the program in order to better embody global citizen.  The leaders of the company wanted the brand to live its values, and they thought that there was no better way to do this than to turn the UPC into a “universal purpose code”.  PepsiCo knew that it had the muscle to change consumer behavior at a reasonable cost and with middling risk: even confusing the 400 million users of Facebook would have a middling effect on the 9 billion units sold daily.  They also had the opportunity to serve as an example to more risk-adverse companies in the market and give them a road map by which they could showcase their own virtuous behavior with social media efforts.

Stickybits had developed a system by which they could convert bar codes like those found on a UPC into a pointer to some digital information, be it a message, a video, or contact info.  They faced a hurdle of teaching (and motivating) users to scan a bar code as part of their everyday behavior.  Using mobile phones for such a purpose is a new phenomenon: smart phone cameras have only recently evolved to the point where they can capture an image with sufficient resolution to differentiate between codes.

Stickybits’ technology and PepsiCo’s market power seemed like an excellent fit, but the partners had to determine how the technology was to be implemented and how the value would be communicated to the consumer.  Why would the consumer be willing to take extra time to scan a UPC, and why would they be interested in continue adding to the discussion by adding crowd-sourced opinions and information?  To this end, they enlisted Gary Vaynerchuk, the founder of Wine Library, who had experience with communicating consumer value (as well as a history of relying on UPCs to communicate information, having readied his store to compete on price even when held to the competitiveness of Google’s previous Froogle endeavor.

Gary was joined on the presentation by Bonin Bough, the Global Director of Digital and Social Media at PepsiCo, and Billy Chasen, the Founder and CEO of Stickybits.  Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, the stakeholders knew that brands like Pepsi were not scared of using social media for marketing campaigns; however, they had to determine why consumers would use the service.  Would consumers wanting to know information about the product they were buying be enough to encourage adoption, or would they need a more self-serving reason?  The experience at point of purchase was evolving in that consumers required more information when making a purchase decision (and based their decision on the culture of and service offered by the producer as much as on the product’s cost.)  Was this enough?

One question that was easy to answer was PepsiCo’s commitment to the cause.  Gary knew that Pepsi wasn’t “full of crap about it”.  He explained that Pepsi had the goal of global citizenship in its DNA.  Pepsi knew that its message would have to be credible and that they would have to be accountable for it.  If a brand is offering to expose its practices and culture in the way that this pilot program entailed, Gary explained, “there’s nowhere to hide”.

The group encouraged the audience to ask questions.  When questions were slow to come, the panel joked that Bonin would pay $100 cash to the first person to ask a question.  When I was called on to ask the second question, I told the panel that I didn’t need the money, but I wanted to know whether Pepsi would be willing to hire me to join their digital and social media efforts (listen for my few seconds of fame for the day at about 20:38 in the video embedded below.)  Rest assured, I asked an actual question, about whether existing social media use habits, namely sharing on Facebook and retweeting on Twitter helped or harmed the efforts of creating a crowd-sourced conversation.  Would it reinforce a positive message or just further undermine a negative commentary from a consumer?  The panel unanimously believed that the practice of sharing would ultimately serve their goals.  Gary offered another nugget of wisdom, adding that he often told his clients that “a negative voice is the best thing that can happen to” them, as it gives them a chance to apologize to the customers, an action that works well to win them over.

The ultimate question, which remained unanswered by the panel, was how to ensure that scanning a UPC and sharing one’s thought on the associated product were relevant to a person.  Even if you were to use a charitable campaign to drive adoption, how could you be sure to create empathy?  This is one of the main reasons that this program, so popular with its main internal stakeholders, remains in pilot and why the team continues to seek help and input on the process.

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