Pepsi Refresh For The Gulf Is An Epic Fail And Heres Why

August 04, 2010 · By Sloane Davidson, Founder and CEO, Hello Neighbor


Let me start by saying this is a rare, but necessary rant stemming from the launch Monday of Pepsi's Refresh Everything for the Gulf contest, to which I have a project in the running. The contest launched Monday on an unstable platform, lacking key functionality, changing the URLs given to entrants to share after it was launched and without updates to any of the entrants about why the site was unstable, when it would be up and running and why it only worked periodically those crucial first 48 hours.

Interested? Read on. It gets better.

Ok, so Pepsi decides to do something cool this year. They launch the Refresh Everything project. They have $1.3 million to give away in grants every month to projects ranging from $5,000 to $25,000. Voters receive 10 votes they can use daily. After the oil spill, they announce a special contest awarding $1.3 million just to the Gulf. I have, frankly, been torn about the contest from the start. On one hand it's money to organizations and individuals with good ideas. On the other hand, it promotes this "popular kid in high school" mentality for nonprofits where they have to focus on asking people to vote for them (a simple action requiring nothing monetary) and then the person feels like they've helped, but if the organization doesn't win they spent time and resources on something with a zero return. This is a serious problem for organizations with already thin resources and an industry-wide problem that has been written about extensively, but I won't touch on here. This is focused on the debacle of the Refresh for the Gulf campaign.

Let's talk about what went wrong.

1) Launch was disorganized. This is PEPSI mind you. As an proposed project, no one was told at what time the contest was going live (8AM EST? 3PM PST). In fact when I filled out the form, I did get a confirmation screen but no email and no correspondence at all the past month. I assumed my project was accepted but couldn't be sure. The site only said that voting would launch 8/2, not what time. I saw some projects start promoting in the morning, before it launched telling people to get ready. By my accounts, it went live around 10AM. I was given this extension to use in promoting the site: (I chose the votenow when I filled out the form, most people put their organization's name) and then on the live page, this was the shortcode:

2) Site was unstable the first 48 hours. Everyone who knows about these contests knows that you have to get ahead early. Since one of their pulldown menus is "Current Leaders" projects want to get their fans voting from the very second the flood gates open to get their votes up. This means that marketing strategies are done in advance of the launch if you're good and know what's up. For me, this was built into the second series of Gulf Coast Benefits happening on August 25th. When we were building this second series of benefits, there were three calls to action: Attend, Donate or Vote. 100% of this effort is volunteered time from experts in the cause space who agreed to push out the Gulf Coast Benefit shortcode once it was live and use in their own blog posts and across the web. The site worked fine the first few hours, then this happened:

Uhm, sorry? I looked around at other projects I was supporting and some worked, some didn't I tried the full URL and the shortcode given to me by Pepsi. Same error. A few hours later, everything seemed fine again and so we all thought it was a slight glitch.

We were wrong.

By Tuesday morning, the links we were given were rendered useless by that error page. Let me tell you what I had done in the meantime and where I had put those wrong links:

(This doesn't even take into account the personal support I've given the campaign, the blog posts I've written encouraging people to submit ideas and support the initiative - all of which is frankly, now an embarrassment).

If it sounds like a lot of work. It is. What happens next is crazier.

3) Pepsi Refresh CHANGES the URL for all of the projects, without updating the shortcode. When I realize the links I've been given aren't working, I email my Pepsi Refresh contact, who says she passed my message to tech support and to "hang in there." A friend who's working on another project calls me. Her tech support finally got through to someone at HUGE, Inc. (the agency that runs the tech side) and says they are aware there are "major isues" on the platform (another friend who knows someone at Weber Shanwick the PR agency responsible for the PR around the campaign tells me they know it's QUOTE - A MESS - UNQUOTE) and that the new URL will have gulf. at the beginning. For all of yesterday, my Pepsi shortcode still failed (as I miserably had to sit through watching friends tweet it and post to their Facebook wall a wrong link and as others emailed me saying the message they got Monday had a bad link). So my new URL became: but the Pepsi shortcode didn't change. (It was only THIS morning that without warning, email update or anywhere on the Refresh blog that my Pepsi shortcode magically changed to

I'm no SEO god, but this is total bullshit. If you change the URL, it's dead across the board. You can salvage it with 404 redirects, but as of THIS VERY MOMENT I'M WRITING THIS POST that hasn't been the case.

What I do know about is people. And let me tell you this, our attention span is short, people got that first code from me and no matter how I email them or message them, that wrong link will continue to be spread around. For my social media rockstar friends that helped me promote the first few days, the reach was well over 100,000 people that I've now lost as votes and might never get back. That initial momentum is gone.

4) The Gulf Projects page lacks category or search functionality. Why Pepsi Refresh didn't copy their existing contest for the Gulf page, I have no idea. But what I can tell you is that the page is useless for any kind of search. See the two boxes below:

Do you see? No search. Nothing to browse the project. I can't look for "education" or "St. Bernard" or "Sloane" for that matter. I can't really find any projects except for searching "Current Leaders" (ERGO) and "Shuffle." Search is what matters! It is a search and discovery world we live in. How can I find cool projects?

Worse, again I feel duped by Pepsi. From the look and the feel of the other site, I thought we were getting THAT. I put my time and effort into a poorly done rendering of the original.

I'm not taking it personally against my project, what I'm saying is this is NOT good business. Pepsi should have tested the site, they should have put more thought into this campaign and acted responsibly to put out a good product. People, like me, put our trust into Pepsi that the time, thought, energy and resources we'd put into creating these ideas, entering the contest and then promoting it would be honored by them, not thrown together and launched full of bugs. It's brand loyalty 101. They've gone from hero to zero in 48 hours and I had to speak up! Someone has to tell Pepsi that this is wrong.

Overall, to make an analogy, Pepsi Refresh is that person that you had a bad vibe from in the very beginning (picture someone to be friends with, date or work for). But they kept popping up, friends kept mentioning you should know them and they did seem to be doing something cool that you could dig on. So you give them a chance, how it could be so bad after all? Sure enough, just when you let you guard down, BAM, the sky falls. Their true nature shows. You're left feeling used and worse about them than you did when you didn't really know them but were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt from afar. Now, up close, it's obvious that no matter what their intentions they can't seem to straighten themselves up enough to make up for some act that violated your trust.

THIS is Pepsi Refresh and me. I was willing to support (online and off) and share the message of what they were doing but from a slight distance. I didn't want to have a project in the running. I had my epic online voting contest fo 2010 (my first time ever entering any kind of online competition ever) and that experience yielded me a trip to the World Economic Forum as a citizen journalist. I've been extremely cautious all year not to go to the social media well and ask for votes again. I've turned down three paid offers to be an evangelist for others Pepsi Refresh projects and turned down an offer to support Pepsi Refresh at SXSW 2010. Finally, after the oil spill and the announcement of the contest exclusively for the Gulf Coast. I relented. The Gulf Coast Benefit Concert series I co-produced July 1st was amazing, raising $45,000 for fishermen and their families through Gulf Restoration Network. We are at it again August 25th to do the same thing, take giving back to the Gulf on a national scale and hopefully raise $100k for Catholic Charities of New Orleans. I've been wanting to find a way to incorporate my past project, Cause It's My Birthday into an upcoming campaign. I relented. I gave in. BAM!

What should happen? I'm torn. Personally, I want to back out of my project and not talk about it online or ask people to vote for it, but at the same time, I have the whole Gulf Coast Benefit team behind me and that's not fair to them. Plus, the project is a good idea and as I'm tireless in helping do what I can to support the Gulf Coast, the $25,000 would go to extremely good use. As for the entire platform and Pepsi, I think they should double the winnings and give away $2.6 million. Their error should be turned into an added reward for the region.

I'm curious what YOU think should happen, please leave a comment if you have a good idea to share.

Gulf Coast Expertise: I'm certainly not true born and raised New Orleanian, but I have a long love affair with New Orleans and am deeply passionate about the area and moved my whole life to New Orleans in December 2009. In that time, I co-created a weekly enewsletter (NOLAlicious), joined forces with a local marketing agency, have clients in the greater New Orleans, have contributed to the local webshow dedicated to entrepreneurs, co-produced campaigns to help build awareness and financial support for the Gulf Oil Spill response (Gulf Coast Benefit Concerts, Citizen Gulf, and tirelessly evangelized about New Orleans on my blog, in talks I give and to visitors who have come to town from far and wide. I recognize that support to the area from outside the area is a necessary objective and in no way am detracting from the good intentions of the overall campaign or others who are looking to get involved.

Full disclosure: I am personal friends with one of the Pepsi Refresh Ambassadors. I have contributed to GOOD Magazine (their partner). I have personal and professional connections with the marketing, PR and tech agencies that are advising Pepsi Refresh and was approached by Pepsi Refresh to represent them during SXSW 2010. Basically what I'm saying is that by most accounts, I should keep my mouth shut, but I simply can't any longer. I hope all of the people representing the entities above understand or can at least respect my decision to write this post.

So that's what I got. I'd like to thank BoltBus for allowing me to write this as I travel from NYC to DC and providing free wifi and I'd like to thank my friends I consulted about this post for giving me the courage to stand up and write it.

Update: Director of Social Media at Pepsi Responds To My Post