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Product placements in popular films and television shows are a well-proven and relatively effective marketing tactic. But when it comes to Empire, everything is a little larger than life, leading Pepsi to recognize it needed to go big with its latest marketing innovation too. That is, it would not be enough just to have Cookie drinking a Pepsi. The brand wanted to become part of the story, thus ensuring that fans of the Lyon family would be exposed to its products throughout the show, whenever they get around to watching it.

This potential market is huge: Empire attracts an estimated 13.5 million viewers when each new episode airs, and then another 9.2 million viewers who watch at their leisure, through different on-demand services (e.g., DVRs, Hulu). These latter viewers constitute an ongoing challenge for marketers though, because in many cases, they do not see the same commercials, and with some services, they even can fast forward or avoid the advertising altogether.

COB-42-17166237-SWhat they cannot miss though is a three-episode storyline in which Jamal, the young Empire character played by Jussie Smollett, earns himself an endorsement contract with Pepsi, shoots the commercial, and then presents it to other musicians during an industry event. Throughout these three episodes, Pepsi is a constant and aspirational presence; the fictional the endorsement is a signal of success for Jamal’s emerging music career. Furthermore, the pitch that the fictional Pepsi executives make to Jamal, to convince him that the endorsement is in his best interest, includes the assertion that Pepsi has a long and storied history of working with cutting-edge musicians and artists. The line serves to “sell” Jamal on the idea of the endorsement, even as it sells viewers on the image of Pepsi as cool and iconic.

Moving beyond these fictional elements, the commercial that Jamal shoots in the show then appears during the actual commercial breaks of the show. The advertisement itself was directed by the show’s creator Lee Daniels, which helped ensure consistency in the tone and image between the show and the marketing communication. Calling it gritty and raw, Daniels promises that the ad, appearing both in the show and during its commercial breaks, would not be “an experience that’s been experienced by the regular Pepsi commercial viewer before.” This thematic consistency is part of what Pepsi is counting on, to make sure that consumers do not regard the endorsement storyline and associated marketing as a sell-out by their beloved show or its creators.

The deal actually required several agreements. First, Pepsi paid Fox, the network that airs Empire, a reported $20 million for the right to enter the show and advertise in and through it. Second, Pepsi entered into separate contracts with Smollett, the actor who plays Jamal and is thus endorsing the company indirectly, and with Daniels, the director creating the vision for the marketing plan by directing both the show and the advertisement.

The experiment thus has required substantial resources from Pepsi. But the company considers the innovative marketing a risk worth taking, especially in response to information from Nielsen about advertising retention. Recent Nielsen data reveal that when a product appears both in the show’s content and during a commercial broadcast during the show, viewers remember that product 18 percent more than if it is solely advertised in a traditional way.

Moreover, Empire’s primary audience is exactly the consumers that Pepsi hopes to attract. Young and hip, these viewers also seem fine with watching a family whose moral compass is a bit off center at times. Still, Pepsi chose Jamal, among the least controversial or violent of the members of the Lyon family, as its linked character, likely to avoid any brand damage that might result if Lucious were seen holding a bottle Pepsi while threatening to murder his uncle.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is this marketing tactic likely to catch on widely? Why or why not?
  2. What other types of advertisers and content providers might benefit from similar agreements? Which would be inappropriate candidates?

Source: Joe Flint, “Pepsi Gets Taste of ‘Empire’ Drama,” The Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2015.