June 21, 2010

Pepsi refreshes Mitchell School science classroom
(and advertising moves into a new era)

Science teacher Kim Wendt at Mitchell School's classroom remodeling project

Remember Pepsi's adorable commercial this year during the Super Bowl? The ad with the bikini....um, the two friends in a bar... um, wait!... the 50 cute kids singing on the mountain?

OK, it was a trick question. Pepsi had no ad during the 2010 Super Bowl, ending a 10-year run during which it spent $142 million promoting its soft drink during America's premiere sporting event. Instead of $3 million for 30 seconds of airtime, the soft-drink giant started a program called the Pepsi Refresh Project -- as in Refresh Your Community. Instead of a few TV ads, Pepsi is spending $20 million this year doing good in local communities across the country.

Mitchell Middle School was a beehive of activity this morning, and not just because this is the first day of summer school for 100 of its 7th and 8th graders. Today is the day volunteers tore everything -- cabinets, flooring, sinks, desks -- out of the school's four science classrooms to ready them for a total makeover, the result of teacher Kim Wendt's Construction for Instruction project that won $50,000 of Pepsi's money in April.

Early in June, Wendt opened an envelope from Pepsi and found a $50,000 Visa debit card inside. And today, to make it even more official, Ross Erickson, Pepsi's regional sales manager, arrived with a mock presentation check, t-shirts for volunteers, cases of bottled water. (But no Pepsi; in fact, vending machines at Racine Unified schools sell only bottled water and fruit juice, although soft drinks are sold in the teachers' lounge.)

It's a big project, but it's under control. Volunteers were stripping the classrooms, while workmen from McIntosh Flooring were removing floor tile. By 11 a.m., the cafeteria was full of removed cabinetry; a dumpster was half-full of debris. Although Wendt admits to being "outside my comfort zone" as a construction supervisor, she is directing a project that clearly would not have taken place without her.

Wearing a red hard hat -- autographed by all of Mitchell's teachers -- Wendt supervised close to 50 volunteers, students, teachers and friends. Among them was Glenn Gibson, a retired science teacher -- 18 years at McKinley, Starbuck and Gifford, and 14 years teaching in South America. "They haven't remodeled these classrooms since the 1970s," he said. "They're definitely overdue for it. I was so excited when I heard about it."

Another was Ellen Huck, a seventh grade English teacher who was one of  Wendt's professors at Carthage College. When Wendt first suggested the project to her students, they told her, "We're never going to win this."  Said Huck, "So many of our kids come from poverty-level homes; they're not used to winning -- or having -- anything."  Teachers were discouraging as well; Wendt was advised by many, "Don't do this; don't rock the boat."

Wendt, 29, a teacher for five years, went ahead anyway. Her application didn't make the cut in March -- Pepsi only posts 1,000 of the approximately 70,000 applications each month. But at 6 a.m. on April 1, there it was on the Pepsi Refresh website, in 373rd place. Wendt had already contacted friends all over the country and abroad. Mitchell's project got votes from Germany, Ireland, Nicaragua, Brazil. Her Chi Omega sorority passed the word around the country. A friend in Los Angeles in the science industry put up a screen on her company's website, urging buyers to vote for the Mitchell School project before they got to their checkout screen. On an airline flight to a meet-and-greet in LA, Wendt even got the stewardess to promote her project to all the other passengers.

Marketing her project, and ultimately winning, was the easy part. Convincing RUSD was more difficult. She remembers a "very tense" first meeting with Racine Unified's Building and Grounds officials when she first proposed it ... but quickly won them over with her grasp of the details. (She had studied classroom design books and, when asked, knew which were load-supporting walls and which were not.) She had also negotiated very favorable prices. The key part of this project is taking four science classrooms and turning them into a very flexible workspace with sliding glass panels -- costly sliding glass panels that school district officials didn't think they could afford.

But Wendt went directly to the president of the Sliding Door Company of San Francisco and Chicago and convinced him to support the project -- to make Mitchell's new classroom space a showroom here in the Midwest -- and to sell her the panels for less than half price, only $20,000 for the panels and $3,400 for installation. "The school district was surprised by the price," Wendt said. "They didn't feel they could get the deal I got as a teacher."

The new classrooms, computer lab, science laboratory and library will be completed before school opens in the fall. Youth as Resources has given kids $1,000 to paint the classrooms (it was Wendt's parents who painted hers a few years ago).

The project could be groundbreaking in other ways, as Pepsi is giving away $1.3 million a month all year to similar projects. Carla Fernandez, who works for the Good Agency, Pepsi's "social responsibility partner," is at Mitchell today to offer support and resources. She was in Lake Geneva last week, working with Fellow Mortals, a wildlife rehabilitation hospital, that won $25,000 in May. Her company helped Pepsi evaluate project applications and provides support to winners. (Another company, Global Giving of Washington, DC, performs due diligence after projects become finalists based on vote totals, before they are named "funded ideas.")

The money for this social media project comes from Pepsi's traditional marketing budget -- the soft-drink bottler spends some $72 million on advertising a year in the U.S., $400 million worldwide. But make no mistake: Pepsi Refresh is still advertising. As all those Facebook and Twitter voters cast their votes for their favorite projects they are inevitably reminded of Pepsi. (Pepsi is "engaged with consumers in a different way," as one marketer described it.) And if it works, we could see more of it -- unquestionably a good thing.

"Hopefully, this will be the future," said Fernandez. She was referring both to the use of conduits like Facebook and Twitter, but also -- and more importantly -- to "doing good." Not words we usually apply to advertising. At least not yet.

Except at Mitchell Middle School.