Few U.S. cities have as many close associations with the holidays as New York, whether through the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree or elaborate window displays at department stores like Bloomingdale's. The coronavirus pandemic has obviously changed the sentiment of the season, as well as curtailed the flood of tourists who typically pour in to explore New York at the usually festive time of year.
A quieter period for travel underpins broader economic damage to the city that Pepsi is looking to alleviate with a new regional marketing campaign centered on local celebrities and a cornerstone of the business community: bodegas, the owner-operated convenience stores found throughout the city. Bodegas have provided a bedrock for New Yorkers before and during the health crisis, but owners haven't been free from the financial strain or personal loss delivered to the city, an epicenter for the pandemic in the spring and an area again experiencing climbing COVID-19 cases.
"Even in one of the richest cities in America, there is so much hardship because of so much uncertainty and job loss," Umi Patel, chief marketing officer of the North Division of PepsiCo Beverages North America, said.
To add authenticity to a program dubbed "The Bodega Giveback," Pepsi partnered with Desus Nice and The Kid Mero, hosts of the popular Bodega Boys podcast and Showtime's "Desus & Mero," to deliver financial relief to the bodega owners that the soda marketer views as unsung pandemic heroes. The brand is additionally doling out prepaid credit cards of up to $100 to some customers who shop at bodegas across the five boroughs through Dec. 20 — a potential boon for people who might otherwise be more strapped for cash than usual in the throes of gift-giving season.
"We felt like it was the right thing to focus on value and then giving that value to consumers and giving them the opportunity to give the value back to their community small business owners as well," Patel said. "There's so much good happening, even amongst all the bad. I think everyone's looking for a platform to be able to highlight that."
Giving back to bodegas
In a short film attached to the campaign, Desus and Mero visit JJN Corp Deli and Grocery in the Bronx, their native borough. The comedians and TV personalities gift the establishment's owner, Juan, a check courtesy of Pepsi to cover a full year of rent through 2021. They also espouse on why bodegas are touchstones of New York neighborhoods.
"A bodega's more than a store, it's the lifeblood of the community," Desus says in the four-minute short, versions of which will run on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The more grounded tone may come as a surprise to those familiar with Desus and Mero, who typically engage in lighthearted riffing that's made their TV show and podcast a smash success. But Patel said it was important to work with talent that could not only bring humor to the situation, but also a genuine connection and appreciation for the services New York bodegas provide.
"What we found with [Desus and Mero] is they have, not only the authenticity, but they can add that little bit of levity," Patel said. "It's a fine line because you want to respect everything that people are going through, but at the same time people also want a little bit of positivity. We felt like they were able to balance that for us."
In an emotional interview during the film, Juan discusses losing his father to COVID-19 — a heavy topic but one that matches with PespiCo's push to center more of its marketing around empathy, a mission the food and beverage giant started in May. The store owner then explains how he felt compelled to keep the store open through the pandemic to honor his father's memory. Throughout the video, loyal customers from the area share stories of why they keep coming back to the bodega and detail the crucial support it's provided in 2020.
"We are looking to do more purposeful work and this is the start of that purposeful work in the communities," Patel said.
Spreading the word
Desus and Mero will amplify the campaign's messaging throughout the month, and Pepsi is also working with local media partners Time Out New York and the New York Post on spreading the word. Meanwhile, Pepsi is encouraging followers to shout out their bodega of choice on social media with the hashtag #PepsiBodega, giving some locations the chance to be entered into the program. To execute the program, Pepsi will be handing out gift cards to consumers shopping locally at bodegas across all five boroughs.
The brand developed the film with VaynerProductions, a unit of VaynerMedia, along with Motive for media strategy and experiential elements and Acceleration, which helped develop the effort and is working on the PR for it. In-house agency Creators League Studios developed the original concept.
While Pepsi has been mulling a local campaign along these lines since the outset of the pandemic in March, according to Patel, the work finally came together in a fashion that's become typical to a year marked by speedy production schedules.
"The idea was floating around eight weeks ago, really, and it was all hands on deck," Patel said.
Clarification: This article has been updated based on new information from Pepsi about the giftcards, which are being handed out at bodegas. Additionally, a previous version of this article misrepresented the roles of some of the program's partners. It was developed with Acceleration Community of Companies while VaynerProductions produced the film.