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The 2021 Pepsi challenge: branding a Super Bowl unlike any other

Derek Lewis, president of PepsiCo’s South Division, talks about the game and halftime show’s return to his home state.
Derek Lewis is the Orlando-based president of PepsiCo's South Division.
Derek Lewis is the Orlando-based president of PepsiCo's South Division. [ PepsiCo ]
Published Jan. 21

We still don’t know exactly what this year’s Super Bowl will look like. But we do know this: At some point, you will see a Pepsi logo. Probably a lot of them.

“It’ll be done a little bit differently,” said Derek Lewis, the Orlando-based president of PepsiCo’s South Division. “But we’re still aiming to make this a very, very great experience for our fans, our customer associates in the right way, and we’ll look for a ton of engagement.”

The Super Bowl is Pepsi’s biggest brand event of the year, partly because it’s the title sponsor of the halftime show, which this year will feature the Weeknd performing in Tampa. But for Pepsi, the community engagement goes well beyond the field. Even during a pandemic.

Between now and Feb. 7, Pepsi is sponsoring a range of initiatives and activities around Tampa Bay, from donating $100,000 to struggling bars and restaurants to sponsoring events at Anna Maria Island and the Florida Aquarium to promote marine life protection and coral reef restoration. As part of a partnership with DoorDash, they’re also covering delivery fees for 4,500 restaurants across Florida on Jan. 24 and Feb. 7, Super Bowl Sunday. (As long as your order includes a Pepsi product, of course.)

“We’ve obviously had to pivot dramatically going back to March, April, May,” Lewis said. “Our ability to collaborate and create these agile moments to pivot, to the communities that are in need, the associates that are in need, our families that are in need, has been tremendous. We lobby for safety first and foremost, and for the most part, to a great extent, we’ve been able to do that.”

Lewis has seen a lot of Super Bowls during his 31 years at Pepsi. As the game approaches, we asked what it means to have the game back in Florida for the second straight year. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

What’s the usual division of labor between Pepsi’s regional division where the game is, and the main office?

It’s a collaboration. When a Super Bowl shows up in any geography in the country, the national organization will still operate with its national-scale plans to draw major awareness. But it’s in concert with the local market. We’re building out the national programs, but we have the ability to create very local initiatives. This year, we probably have more local initiatives given the environment, given that so many brands and companies are pulling back. We feel a need to lean into a very difficult circumstance. More than ever, it’s time to stand our communities up and lift them up, and we feel good about what we’re going to do to help make that happen.

Related: Sponsors back away from Tampa's Super Bowl parties — and other local events, too

In a normal year, in a non-pandemic year, your Super Bowl week would look like ... what?

It’s a full engagement. Last year, we had the Rookie of the Year celebration we hosted. We had several market tours. We were out with customers. We were running promotions. We would spend a lot of time with front-line associates. We’d pull community leaders together for events, whether it’s receptions or opportunities to do some networking, and talk about things that we’d done leading up to the event, and some more ideational things going forward. The follow-up that comes out has been tremendous. There were things in Miami that are still running from when we were there a year ago. We’ll hopefully see the same thing happen for Tampa.

At what point over the past 12 months did you realize and accept that the Tampa game was not going to be the same as the Miami game last year?

Early on, there was potential that there couldn’t have been a game, or the game would have been pushed to a later date. As things settled in and we saw the NFL’s position on having a full season and executing very, very strong protocols throughout the season, they’ve done a wonderful job. I still think the excitement of the big game is going to be tremendous. It’ll be a little bit different. You won’t have a full house in Raymond James, but you will have full “home-gating” experiences. I think this DoorDash program is one great way to create an opportunity in a difficult situation and help the local restaurant owners in the state of Florida continue to thrive and get back on their feet as they go forward.

How much of an impact did the lack of fans in stadiums in 2020 have on Pepsi in terms of the marketplace?

We obviously didn’t see the traffic counts, so you can imagine (in terms of) consumption, those venues were challenged with limited mobility. On the flipside, this home-gating experience has picked up dramatically, and that’s led to some really positive things from a consumption standpoint. No gameday is complete without tasty eats and ice cold Pepsi. That’s where it’s going to be until we can see mobility flex back to where it was, or close to where it was. So we’re going to capitalize on that. The moment mobility starts to come back the other way and we have fans in arenas, we’ll be able to pivot back to that as well.

Related: As Tampa's Super Bowl nears, party buzz is muted

Pepsi’s donating grants to struggling bars and restaurants through the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. That’s obviously an initiative you couldn’t have foreseen without the pandemic. How did it come about, and how will it work?

Our local restaurant operators have experienced a tremendous challenge, going all the way back to the first quarter of last year. We collaborate very well with our headquarter organization to find ways to help restaurant owners stand up, get back on their feet, stay in business, make sure they have support or resources. The grant’s $100,000 we’re offering that’s going to help some in the bay area, restaurants that have really been struggling. It’s one way we’re giving back, but we’re trying to do other things as well. It’s not a one-time thing we’re doing. It’s a multi-faceted plan. We want to make sure they’re very, very successful as we start to evolve through the pandemic.

Will you get any face time with the Weeknd at this year’s game?

I’m not counting on it. I’m respecting the environment that’s out there right now. I’m not even going to ask if I can, because I want to make sure they’re protected, they’re dialed in, they do what they do best, and can bring us one of the best halftime shows we’ve ever seen. I want to be one of those behind-the-scenes guys that makes sure everything goes well for everybody else. I might be on the couch myself watching it at the end of the day, after a long, hard week of working.