5 Lessons to be Learned from Jeff Gordon’s Pepsi MAX ‘Test Drive’


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article, originally published on March 20, 2013, placed at No. 3 in our 20 most popular articles of the year.

ADOTAS – Branded content has been the buzz of the past year, and the recent Pepsi MAX piece featuring Jeff Gordon taking an unsuspecting North Carolina car salesman on the test drive of a lifetime serves as a reminder of how powerful this strategy can be.

As of the writing of this piece, the video has been viewed over 16 million times on YouTube, within 72 hours of being published.  By point of comparison, earlier this week 10 million people watched the season finale of wildly popular ABC TV show “The Bachelor.”

So what to make of all of this?

Consider for a minute the potential implications for the online advertising industry.  So far, the big “brand” dollars have stayed out of the online game – brand campaigns account for ~60% of all ad spend in the US, but only 25% of ad spend online.¹  Instead, online advertising has disproportionately been about direct response, i.e. e-commerce sales, lead generation, or driving referral traffic.

But as Pepsi and others rack up astronomical view counts, the demonstrated value of smart content marketing — particularly in video — is becoming household knowledge.  Perhaps the time for brand dollars to come off the sideline has finally arrived.

Regardless of the macro trend, consider what we can distill from the Jeff Gordon Pepsi test drive and other successful branded videos:

1)  A branded content piece is not just a really long ad. For those of us with the thirty-second TV spot structure burned into our creative processes the temptation to throw in product features, competitive language and visual or auditory calls to action can be tough to avoid.  But avoid it you must.

Viewers know an ad when they see one — Americans watch on average seven hours of television per day — and the last thing you want is to have your content relegated to “commercial” status.

When’s the last time you shared or liked something you would describe as an ad?  Save the hard sell for the pre-rolls and exercise some subtlety.

2) Brand integration should primarily be visual, not spoken. This is a subtle but important point.  Think of the most successful branded content of the past year and envision the brand integration.  The Pepsi MAX video incorporates a Pepsi can in the cupholder, Felix Baumgartner wore a Red Bull-branded space suit for the Stratos jump from near outer space, the Coca-Cola 007 challenge featured a branded vending machine.

The brand integration was visual in each case and did not dictate the storyline, but was seamlessly woven into it.  When done correctly, visual integration leads to higher brand recall and the placement is less obtrusive to the user experience.  I’d call that a win-win.

3) Tell a story. All great video content is about storytelling; branded video is no different.  This means your piece should have a discernible beginning, middle and end.  There should be some intrigue, suspense and/or compelling narrative – in other words, a reason to keep watching.  The focus is on creating an emotional response that is on-message with your brand.

Practically speaking, consider the team required to bring this to life.  You need a creative team with a filmmaker’s mentality that can craft a story, drive engagement and elegantly marry your brand to it — no small task.

4) Consider your distribution channels. Presuming you have a creative, entertaining video that tells a story, evokes an emotional response that is on-message and subtly integrates your branding—the distribution strategy must match.

As ever, paid, owned and earned channels must all be part of the equation, but there are certain channels that deserve extra emphasis for branded content.  Social media — both paid and owned — can gain rapid exposure for your branded piece.  Our experience dictates social is generally more cost-effective than SEM and far more reliable than display advertising or – Heaven forbid – waiting for an SEO campaign to gain momentum.

The data you have to call upon through social are also far richer.  What emotions are emphasized in comments, what hash-tags accompany tweets?  We know far more about the audience response and brand influence from these, than what click-through rates, visits or other crude data points could ever tell us.

5) Ditch the typical metrics. With so much of online budgets directed toward direct response campaigns, the temptation is to apply the same measures of success to branded content marketing, though it represents much more of a traditional brand campaign than search or even display.

An overemphasis on conversions, leads or even referral traffic in the short-term can short-circuit your campaign before it ever gets off the ground.  Instead, consider analytics platforms (awe.sm is one) that track top influencers in your audience and how they are spreading the word and generating earned media.

Content marketing represents a tremendous opportunity for brands and publishers in the online arena.  Are you ready to take it for a spin?

¹ Based on data from Barclays Capital, Think Equity Partners, LLC and DMA, quoted from Mark Suster presentation to Blue Glass Marketing Conference 2012.


    • This ad is pure genius. A video like that leaves a lasting impression on you that far out lasts a 30 sec commercial. Who watches commercials willingly? No One


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