In one of the most talked-about viral campaigns in China, PepsiCo teamed up with the China Women’s Development Foundation to help solve a critical drinking water issue in China’s mainland. The aim of the campaign, known as ‘Activate Your Thirst’, was to create awareness for the foundation’s Mother Water Cellar project for building water cellars in the country’s water-deficient interior. Activating its powerful media channels and calling on some of the country’s best-known pop and film stars, the company was one of the first to combine marketing and CSR in China in a single campaign. With fantastic results.

If you think about it, combining marketing and CSR in a single campaign makes sense, as you get both proverbial birds in a single shot. It has certainly paid dividend for Pepsi. After more than doubling its market share in China since 2007, this new campaign attracted more than half a billion hits on the brand’s website, nearly 350 million users to the campaign videos, and gained a focus in over 1300 major online and print media sources. Numbers marketers in the rest of the world can only dream of.

Richards Lee - Activate Your Thirst - by CoolBrands
Richards Lee – Activate Your Thirst – by CoolBrands

Meeting Richard Lee in Shanghai

We meet up with Richard Lee, Pepsi’s Global Marketing VP for sparkling drinks, in Shanghai. We met Richard in 2009 when he was based in New York as global brand director for Pepsi when he told us the story of how they introduced Pepsi in China and created higher brand preference than its main competitor (Coca-Cola). After a number of years in New York, he decided to return to Shanghai to master the Chinese market, a market with huge potential and completely different challenges than the US market.

Richard: “I learned a lot from working in the US, but I decided to return and grow the brand in China. The growth in China is unprecedented. Yes, there are a lot of challenges, but there are also sample opportunities to make a difference, creating something really cool and impactful!” “Richard, you mentioned that you are working on the dual campaign ‘Activate Your Thirst’, which sounds like a perfect project to work on. To get both your brand message out and create more awareness for a social project that actually has a link to your core business, ‘thirst’ if I may call it that. But maybe you can explain to us how and why you came up with this campaign.”

Richard: “I will, but let us first get back to the start of Pepsi in China. We always knew that making it in China was going to call for some pretty special marketing. Obviously, with its size and demographic spread, it’s hugely complex. Since marketing is relatively immature here as compared to Europe and the US, we recognised relatively early on that one of the best ways to touch the hearts and minds of the people is to tap into existing media and its stars. We employ celebrities as brand-building ingredients, as they engage the emotions of our target audience, thereby creating an emotional response to the drink.”

“We decided to use the same approach for this campaign. We actually achieved double penetration by using storytelling: we produced a modernised version of China’s most popular classical novel, The Pursuit of the Holy Grail, which featured four of China’s favourite actors and a former Miss World. It’s been a huge success, with hundreds of millions of interactions on Social Media and massive talk value created. Stardom is clearly not the exclusive product of Hollywood!”

‘Activate Your Thirst’

As we drink our Pepsi, Richard continues explaining: “The new campaign had a single overall objective, namely engaging the Chinese youth, but it used a dual purpose. Clearly, on the functional side, the new campaign intended to further increase the company’s market share. On the other hand, it also aimed to serve as inspiration, urging people to make a difference through the MWC project and thereby contribute to greater social awareness. This combination of pure marketing and corporate social responsibility is rare in China, as companies generally separate the two in separate campaigns.”

Richards Lee (Pepsico) - Activate Your Thirst - by CoolBrands
Richards Lee – “Activate Your Thirst”

Celebrity Endorsement
Pepsi has always been one of the greatest celebrity endorsers around, with past stars including such megastars as Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin and Britney Spears, among others. It’s no different in China, where the company has called on a new Pepsi Star Family for the epic tale remake, including probably the four biggest names in Chinese media: Louis Koo (film), Jolin Cai (pop), Show Lo (pop) and Xiaoming Huang (film), and former Miss World Zang Zilin. In the TV spot, the Holy Grail quest is transformed into one of seeking ultimate refreshment. The endorsement of these megastars automatically attracts viewers’ attention and activates their emotions, a sure-fire way of sticking in people’s minds.

Pepsi Swirl Glass
The second core idea behind the campaign was to create a communications device to be used in both a virtual and physical capacity: the Pepsi Swirl glass. Featured in the TV spots and available from numerous retailers, those buying Pepsi got a glass and were urged to sign up and support MWC. They also participated in a lucky draw competition.

Richard: “Alongside the physical glass, we activated many of China’s most popular websites by featuring the megastars who urged visitors to pass on the MWC message through a ‘virtual’ swirl glass. Visitors were challenged to collect all four celebrity messages, thereby creating participation and support. Also backed by a competition, a total of 1,000 winners from the online and on-ground activation were given the opportunity to visit an MWC site with the Pepsi stars. We as Pepsi donated 1,000 water cellars in the winners’ names.”

The innovative campaign approach was backed by the more traditional media also, with in-depth reports in leading youth magazines explaining the dual meaning of ‘Activate your Thirst’ and of course featuring the stars. Talk value was created during a Pepsi-led conference at the start of the campaign with over 250 representatives of the key media.

Overall, the consumer buzz was enormous, with a total of 511 million visitors to online pages, 337 million users watching the viral and ‘making of’ videos, and over 1,300 features in major online and print media. The social network sites alone attracted 30 million and the campaign reached over 100 million people in stores. A remarkable achievement.

Richards Lee - Activate Your Thirst - by CoolBrands
Richards Lee – Activate Your Thirst – by CoolBrands

Long-term benefit for MWC

With this new dual-purpose campaign, Pepsi has of course taken the MWC awareness to new heights. Since its inception in 2001, the project has built 115,000 water cellars, benefiting 1.5m people and covering 23 provinces. Pepsi has been the largest donor and most active participant for the Mother Water Cellar project since its inception. Through the company alone, with contributions by the Pepsi Foundation, the Pepsi GCR Division and its Chinese staff, they have donated enough to build 1,500 water cellars and initiated 30 small water supply projects. This has benefited 56,000 people in seven provinces in some of China’s most far-flung regions.

Throughout the 10-year project, the company has introduced its professional expertise and techniques related to water, as well as promoting wider access to safe drinking water projects. The ultimate aim is to elevate people’s standards of living and improve the rural living environment.

Richard: “Seeing the campaign take off as it did has been fantastic. Of course we’re benefiting ourselves, and it has helped consolidate our position as the top cola manufacturer in China. But it’s managing to combine commercial objectives with clear social benefits that make the job truly worthwhile. We have witnessed genuine improvements and changes to the life conditions of those in the western regions where water is seriously lacking.”

As we exit the Pepsi building and review Richard’s story, we realize that the ‘Activate Your Thirst’ campaign is in line with the people, planet, profit trend where companies not only measure their economic success but also the ecological and social impact. “This will be an interesting story to share with opinion leaders around the world.”

Red more stories on Richard Lee

Tags: Activate Your Thirst, China Women’s Development Foundation, CoolBrands, CoolBrands Global, Foundation’s Mother Water Cellar project, Global Story Telling Campaign, Meeting, Meeting Pepsi, Meeting Richard Lee, Pepsi, Pepsi China, Pepsi CSR in China, Pepsi’s Global Marketing VP, PepsiCo, Richard Lee, Story Telling, The Pursuit of the Holy Grail, Storytelling, Global Storytelling Campaign, water, people, planet, profit, people planet profit, Sustainability, Cool Sustainability, Sustainable, WDF, Louis Koo, Jolin Cai, Show Lo, Xiaoming Huang, Miss World Zang Zilin, Zang Zilin, Pepsi Swirl Glass, Pepsi Swirl, Pepsi stars, water cellars, Pepsi-led, Activate Your Thirst Campaign, Pepsi Cola