City Year's Pepsi Challenge

Pepsi_1_2Boston-based City Year got slammed over the weekend for a cause marketing pact it's inked with PepsiCo.  City Year's name and logo will appear on hundreds of millions of Pepsi cans in a cause marketing program slated for January 2008.

Written by two professors from Harvard Medical School, the Boston Globe editorial complains that City Year is "jeopardizing its hard-won reputation...in the pursuit of better recognition" by endorsing soda--"a chief culprit in the epidemic of childhood obesity."

I faced similar criticism around PepsiCo's involvement in Halloween Town.  Some people were unhappy the first year because Pepsi had a very visible presence [note: nonprofits could learn a lot from how well soda companies market themselves] and they poured free soda, albeit in those tiny cups.  Soda combined with the giveaway of thousands of pounds of free candy didn't make for the greatest public relations--espeically for a hospital that prided itself on promoting good nutrition to kids.  One sponsor, a top health insurance company here in Mass., went so far as to refuse to increase their financial commitment to the event until we offered healthier snacks and drinks.

We addressed these concerns in several ways the following year.  We integrated Pepsi more into the set of Halloween Town so their presence wasn't so visible and dramatic to the other sponsors.  Pepsi poured their flavored water instead of soda.  We also limited free candy and added nutritious snacks like granola bars and apples.  But what helped the most was having trick-or-treat stations in each area where volunteers handed out candy--as opposed to letting kids help themselves, as we did the previous year.

I should mention that throughout the process, Pepsi was supportive and flexible.  They never considered NOT being part in the event, and worked with us to make sure their presence was positive, welcomed and appropriate for other sponsors and our young guests.

With City Year, the concern is that schoolchildren that look up to City Year role models, which range in age from 17 to 24, "may interpret the 'cool' City Year/Pepsi can as a reason to drink more soda."  They're probably right.  But we all know that kids are influenced in dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ways to consume sugary drinks.  Of course, this doesn't change the simple fact that a deal with Pepsi puts City Year squarely on the side of the "problem" of childhood obesity, instead of the solution.

The debate highlights the challenge nonprofits have finding the "right" kind of partners.  Timberland, a longtime supporter of City Year, is called an "exemplar of socially conscious corporations."  Very true and well deserved.  But how many companies are there like Timberland?  The pool is clear but shallow.  Row out a little further and the deep, murky waters are teeming with big companies that are as generous as Timberland.  But these companies import from abroad, discriminate against women and minorities, air offensive programs, underpay their employees, overcharge their customers, make shoddy goods or sell products that are unhealthy, even deadly.

What's a cause marketer to do?

Like our for profit partners, we need to grow profits to boost the bottom-line.  If we don't, people die, services shrink, infrastructure decays.  If City Year holds out for corporate partners like Timberland and their urban Peace Corps flounders, will we be comforted knowing that the children it was role model to drink Coke instead of Pepsi?