In 2012, Pepsi took a chance by tapping then-emerging DJ-producer Calvin Harris to create an original song for a European soccer campaign on behalf of its fledgling sugar-free soda Pepsi Max. The result? “Let’s Go,” a global hit featuring Ne-Yo that reached the top 20 of the U.S. Hot 100 and helped establish Harris’ profile as the EDM pop maestro this side of David Guetta.
For its follow-up, Pepsi didn’t want to just make another soccer-friendly single with a rising star. Instead, the soda giant is establishing its own label, MSC Sounds, in partnership with Universal’s Caroline Distribution, for a full album tied to the excitement around the World Cup, “Beats of The Beautiful Game,” out June 10 in the U.S. (June 9 internationally.) Janelle Monae, Kelly Rowland, Rita Ora, Timbaland, R3hab and Brazilian hip-hop trio Perlas Negras lead an international roster of 11 artists who’ve created original or exclusive songs for the project, with Spike Lee, Idris Elba, Diego Luna and Young Astronauts among the bold-faced names behind the camera for a series of 11 short films inspired by each song.
In short, it was a chance for Frank Cooper, chief marketing officer-global consumer engagement for PepsiCo’s global beverage group, to “throw out the rulebook” of how a typical music-and-sports ad campaign should be handled. “What I’m proud of is no one dusted off an old demo, like, ‘Here’s the one that I’ve been waiting for someone to pick up. Pepsi, give me a check.’ Everyone brought their A game,” he says.
Pepsi will promote the album throughout the summer, debuting a new song on iTunes each week leading up to the album’s release as well as a new “filmtrack” on Pepsi.com/TheGame and on YouTube. Though Pepsi can’t mention “World Cup” in any of its messaging (that’s Coke territory), the brand is hoping its fusion of music, sports and film will make it one of the FIFA 2014’s most successful ambush marketers. “No matter where you are in the pop culture space, there’s gonna be a lot of brands. It’s a matter of tapping into the right people talking about your initiative, your song or your film,” Cooper says.
Beats doubles as a launchpad for Pepsi’s Music Accelerator program, which will see the brand utilizing its vast marketing assets ($2.4 billion in global sponsorship spend, 31 million Facebook fans, 2.25 million Twitter followers) to help boost the careers of emerging artists in the same fashion as it did for Harris in 2012. One of the closest parallels this year is with Dutch DJ R3hab, who shares a manager with Harris in Three Six Zero’s Mark Gillespie, and contributes the original song “Unstoppable” featuring fellow Netherlands native Eva Simons. Currently unsigned to a label but prepping an album’s worth of new material with superstar vocalists for later this year, R3hab could leverage the extra momentum to land a more lucrative deal.
“It’s a nice situation to be in,” says Gillespie. “With support from somebody like Pepsi and a well-established touring career, you gain a lot of leverage.” R3hab, a.k.a. Fadil El Ghoul, was particularly drawn to creating a song from scratch that was inspired by the energy of the sport without having to make any specific mentions of a brand or gameplay. “The first thing that came to my mind was the journey from defeat to winning, whether it’s soccer or lacrosse or a number-one single,” he says.
R3hab isn’t the only unsigned artist whose next project will be shaped by “Beats of the Beautiful Game.” Kelly Rowland teamed with producer Jake Troth for “The Game,” a midtempo stomper with lyrics penned by Sia. Rowland loved making the track so much and stretching her vocals into more rock-based territory than we’ve come to expect from the former Destiny’s Child, she’s already tapped Troth to produce songs for her forthcoming fifth album. “He’s so innovative and fresh and pushes me as an artist to stretch my creative self,” says Rowland, who will also soon be shopping for a new label after parting ways with Republic Records earlier this year. “Pepsi made that introduction, and he’s been one of the major highlights for me with this new album.”
Rowland will be one of the few artists to appear on-camera in their accompanying “Beats” filmtrack, which is about to film in Brazil with director Spike Lee. Speaking to Billboard, Lee says he was inspired to participate in the Pepsi program through a triangulation of his own projects — his own ad agency Spike DDB, an ongoing documentary project he’s been filming with Brazilian musicians like Caetano Veloso, Tom Ze and Gilberto Gil, and Michael Jackson’s 1995 music video “They Don’t Care About Us,” which he directed and filmed parts of in the heart of Rio de Janiero. “When you think about Brazil, you think about the drums,” Lee says, noting that Pepsi had few guidelines when it came to guiding his creative process. “I’m a storyteller, so I’m very grateful that my man Frank Cooper gave me the opportunity to do what I love, which is to make films.”
Though Pepsi had been brainstorming ideas for a Music Accelerator program for over a year, artist searches for “Beats” began in earnest in late November, giving the program a rather narrow six-month window from initial conversation to rollout. A wide net was cast to regions far (Egypt’s Hassan el Shafei, China’s Jolin Tsai Yl-ling) and near (Santigold, Timbaland, Monae’s Rio-fied cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” In the complicated scramble to convince artists to submit exclusive tracks that would be interpreted by filmmakers without their input, a few acts came and went due to time constraints.
“It was a tricky proposition,” admits RPM’s Lylette Pizarro Mclean. Robin Thicke was in talks at one point to submit a new remix of his “Blurred Lines” album track “Feels Good,” as was Lorde, who penned an original song for the program. Of the latter, Cooper says, “she just didn’t like the song, and we didn’t have time to get her back in the studio. We love what she does, and I love the song, but what do I know?”
Lorde’s Lava labelmate Jetta, however, will likely get a big “Beats” boost from the inclusion of her new single “Crescendo,” which features production from Pharrell. She’ll release a new EP in the UK next month, setting up a U.S. release for the fall. “We all agreed Jetta is a next-generation superstar, and Pepsi responded to her ethos, her music and her style,” says Lava Records president Jason Flom. “It’s one of those things where it made sense at every level.”
In addition to distribution, Pepsi is also handling radio-promo duties for select tracks from “Beats,” including Don Omar’s “Pura Vida,” the reggaeton superstar’s Brazilian-inflected single (and lead track from forthcoming album “The Last Don II.”) But aside from a couple tweets from Omar himself about the Pepsi partnership, there’s nothing about the song or its accompany film helmed by music-video director Jessy Terrero to make the connection explicit to fans — save for a subtle use of Pepsi’s signature “blue” hue on the jerseys of the video’s soccer team. “Subliminally, we wanted you to feel like the blue team has won,” Terrero says.
And that’s the point, says Cooper. “The fundamental assumption in the whole platform is that we believe in and trust the online audience. You don’t have to beat them over the head with a brand message. We find it’s actually better that they learn it themselves and find out in a more organic way.” Pepsi will likely repurpose several of the filmtracks for TV ads that would air closer to the World Cup in June. “We’ll throw some fuel on the fire at a more appropriate time,” Cooper adds.