Special Report: Direct Response Media: Pepsi mag collects on taste test data

Pepsi-Cola's Pop Life magazine walks a thin, but surprisingly comfortable line between marketing and publishing that leads directly to successful brand promotion.The 650,000 circulation magazine is well-received by the valuable 12-19 age group, it helps Pepsi better gauge the interests of...

Pepsi-Cola’s Pop Life magazine walks a thin, but surprisingly comfortable line between marketing and publishing that leads directly to successful brand promotion.

The 650,000 circulation magazine is well-received by the valuable 12-19 age group, it helps Pepsi better gauge the interests of young people, and it takes advantage of a resource already available to the soda giant.

The semi-annual magazine was launched in the spring of 1993 after Pepsi decided it wanted to take advantage of the vast amount of data it had collected through its ubiquitous Taste Patrol booths.

At the booths, participants taste unidentified colas and choose their favorite, and Pepsi claims six of 10 people choose its product over Coke.

‘We probably have only a minute and a half of quality interaction [at the booths] with either a current customer or a potential customer,’ says Jeff Lobb, director of marketing at Pepsi Canada.

‘We knew we wanted to continue that dialogue, and that’s what really got us into the evolution of what eventually became Pop Life magazine,’ Lobb says.

That evolution started with coupon offers, and moved into Pepsi merchandise offers before becoming Pop Life, which Lobb says he would still characterize as a database marketing effort extending from the Taste Patrol program, more than an entity unto itself.

‘Six years ago, we weren’t sure how we were going to use that data,’ he says.

‘All we knew was, if you’re standing across the counter, it’s a lost opportunity not to get [the customer's] name, address and other information.’

The magazine, produced by Capital C, a Toronto-based marketing communications agency, is a highly polished magazine driven mainly by teenagers’ interest in celebrity.

The Fall 1994 issue had a cover story on Hollywood heartthrob Johnny Depp, previewed upcoming movies and music, included a feature on the meaning of dreams, and addressed topics such as sports, fashion, and, ironically, advertising.

A French-language issue contained, among other things, a story on television comedy, another on basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, and a five-page fashion spread.

Pop Life’s total planned Fall ’95 issue circulation of about 700,000 (30% for the French Infopop) is up about 200,000 from last year, making it the highest circulation teen magazine in the country.

Pop Life is designed to encourage feedback from readers, and although Executive Editor Sandy Kovack says he did not initially expect much response, he has been pleased by readers’ reactions.

‘Given the fact that kids are incredibly lazy by nature, we did not have great hopes,’ Kovack says.

He can only guess why the response – a sack of mail a day for over three weeks after the latest issue -was so strong.

‘I don’t think there are an awful lot of opportunities for young people to be heard,’ Kovack says.

Most of the mail is made up of responses to questionnaires found at the back of the magazine, but there are still a great number of unsolicited letters, which give Pepsi a more complete, qualitative sense of the character of the teenage market, as well as ideas for future stories.

But, usually story ideas are decided upon by Kovack and Editor Angela Baldasarre, before being approved by Pepsi. The stories are written by freelancers.

The Pop Life format was developed after comprehensive research, involving about 3,000 randomly chosen teenagers, gave Capital C information such as what topics are of interest to young people and which celebrities are popular in that age group.

Kovack says it has been a great challenge to produce something that has appeal to a broad range of ages (12-19), both sexes, different cultures, and different parts of the country.

‘We want to keep it exciting, and interesting, and fun, without getting into `alternative’ things,’ he says. ‘We can’t fall into a strictly [trendy] Queen Street West [in Toronto] mentality.’

After each issue, Capital C conducts focus group sessions and follow-up telephone interviews to determine the success of its approach.

Pepsi’s research shows that readers spend upwards of an hour on each issue, and that each issue is read by two people per household, allowing Pepsi to claim an effective readership of about 1.3 million.

Research also shows 92% of teens like the magazine as much, or better, than other teen magazines, and participants in the Taste Patrol/Pop Life program have a 33% higher brand awareness than non-participants.

There was also a measurable increase, according to Pepsi, in brand perception figures in terms of best taste, and brand drunk most often.

‘The impact is that, on average, [participants] consume one more 12-ounce serving per week,’ Lobb says.

Pop Life’s tremendous penetration allows Pepsi to charge a premium price for third-party, non-competitive advertising.

The 1995 Spring and Fall issues will have 18 full-page ads on 48 pages.

A full-page ad costs $36,300 based on a distribution of 650,000 copies.

Those kinds of rates mean that by the end of this year, third-party advertising will have created revenues of about $1 million for Pepsi, according to Tony Chapman, president of Capital C.

‘All the regular [advertisers] are back,’ Chapman says. ‘That excites me the most.’

Advertisers include Procter & Gamble, Neilson Cadbury, Oxy (SmithKline Beecham Consumer Brands), Health and Welfare Canada, and, new this year, BMG Music Club.

While the advertising does not begin to cover the (undisclosed) cost of the magazine, Lobb says the line between costs and revenues is ‘moving towards each other.

‘To do the Taste Patrol and Pop Life, and to do them well is an expensive proposition, but our research makes us feel the benefits outweigh the costs,’ he says.

Lobb says Pepsi is considering extending the Pop Life program to syndicated radio, and, if it is appropriate, even the Internet.

‘We feel a lot more comfortable exploring those things because we feel good about what the database marketing has done for us so far,’ he says.