PepsiCo. is putting social media to the test with its new charity initiative Refresh Everything. The soft-drink giant has notably refrained from SuperBowl ads this year, choosing instead to spread the word for its new campaign through digital and social means.

But will those efforts work when rival brands continue big TV buys and have the same ability to add digital aspects to their campaigns?

Pepsi is hoping that changing the way it does business will help improve its bottom line. Bonin Bough, global director of digital and social media at PepsiCo., says:

“This program has to be about a movement and not about a moment.”

The soft-drink maker plans to increase its digital spend by 60% in 2010. But more importantly, Pepsi is using its charitable campaign to show consumers that it is serious about doing good in the world.

Over the next five months, the company is giving away $20 million to “ideas big or small” that help make the world a better place.
They’re asking individuals to suggest charitable efforts and giving
away money in increments — 32 grants each month.
Winners will receive between $5,000 to $250,000 to realize their goals. According to Bough, this is the first time that a concept this big will be deployed across Pepsi’s entire marketing program.

Grants will also be given across Pepsi’s partner programs with companies like Kroger and Walmart. The first day of the contest, Pepsi received 1000 submissions in just 72 hours. The second call, on February first eanrd 1000 subissions in 16 hours.

Combined with the brand sponsorship of Social Media Week in New York, Pepsi has been actively demonstrating its commitment to digital. But other big brands also have access to digital.

All of the advertisers who purchased spots in the SuperBowl are also working on digital and social media campaigns to accompany their 30-second television spots. According to USAToday:

“Nearly 100 million viewers are expected to watch the game on Sunday.
About 40 million Super Bowl viewers plan to watch the ads online, too,
according to a survey by ad agency Venables.”

And that’s not taking into account the efforts that Pepsi’s closest competitor, Coke, is adding to its campaign. Coke’s SuperBowl spot has charitable elements and is tied to a social media campaign that will give $500,000 to the Boys & Girls Club of America.

But Pepsi is making corporate wide changes. Beyond the Refresh campaign, the company has reduce 50% of plastic in its water bottles,
which results in a huge reduction in the world’s plastic consumption.
They’re also working on biodegradable potato chip bags that will cut
down on recycling costs around the globe.

It may be counterintuitive for one of the world’s largest producers of sugary water to reposition itself as an environmentally conscious brand, but if it gives them an edge over other soft-drink producers, this effort could help the company’s bottom line.

According to Virginia Miracle, SVP of digital strategy at Ogilvry PR’s 360 Digital Influence, brands focused on corporate responsibility are:

“Trying to create a reason for you to consistently opt into a relationship with them even when the product next to them may be similar.”

For Pepsi, that’s incredibly important. Pepsi is hoping that its more aggressive approach will pay off in its fierce competition with Coke. But the company is taking a gamble in its hope that consumers are ready to make purchasing decisions based on all of the increased focus on charitable giving. Coke’s more traditional route, of branding to the large SuperBowl audience, could hurt sales for Pepsi this year.

But this will be a good test of the power of social media for branding. If spending $20 million on doling out charitable grants can people to
reach for a Pepsi product over Coke next time they’re thirsty, it will
be money well spent.