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A waterfall of Pepsi at SXSWi

The beverage giant has reached out to the social-media crowd like nothing else. So what does it hope to get out of its SXSWi marketing blitz?

Pepsi's 'Refresh Cafe' at the Austin Convention Center.
Caroline McCarthy/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--It seems a little bit counterintuitive at first that one of the most prominent brands at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi), an annual gathering of all things digital-media, isn't a tech company in the least: it's PepsiCo, a food and beverage conglomerate originally founded in 1898.

The company, a top-tier sponsor of SXSWi, had set up two large-scale booths in the hallways of the Austin Convention Center, a "Podcast Playground" that hosted various events including its "Speakeasy" video blog series, and the "Refresh Cafe," a set of chill-out couches accompanied with materials about PepsiCo's new "Refresh" brand revamp.

"We're across SXSW, not just SXSW Interactive," Bonin Bough, PepsiCo's global director of digital and social media, told CNET several days before the festival kicked off last Thursday, in reference to the music and film festivals that run alongside SXSWi. "It's kind of like the Super Bowl of culture, it's film, it's 2,000 indie bands, and it's all the technology folks all converging, and it's a combination of industry creators in music and media, as well as attendees that are just fans."

Pepsi had also sponsored the buzzworthy Foursquare's SXSWi marketing blitz, Tuesday's SoundCTRL music tech event, and one of Sunday night's big parties, hosted by Podcast Playground partner and TechCrunch50 favorite AnyClip. Its SoBe drink brand was front and center in the outdoor "Lizard Lounge," Pepsi-hosted screens with a "zeitgeist" of aggregated SXSWi chatter were placed throughout the convention center, and on Saturday, people crowded into the Podcast Playground to watch industry blog Mashable and Web celeb Gary Vaynerchuk unveil "SparkHelp," one of the most prominent entries in PepsiCo's current "Refresh Everything" campaign to fund social entrepreneurship projects.

The crowds at SXSWi probably weren't surprised to see any of it. PepsiCo has put forth one of the boldest digital-media marketing campaigns the Web has seen, even ditching Super Bowl ads this year altogether--launching its $20 million Facebook- and Twitter-centric "Refresh Everything" campaign instead. It was absolutely ubiquitous as a sponsor of the "Social Media Week" marketing events last month, and has also sponsored the BlogHer and BlogWorld conferences.

But perhaps most unusual has been that in the process, it's also courted everyone from Internet video stars to people with high Twitter follower counts, amassing digital "influencers" for events like a Mountain Dew taste-test party last summer.

"Last year was the first year that we sponsored SXSWi, and it was the beginning of supporting these innovation (and) digital events," Bough told CNET. "We reach out to them as partners, also potentially as brand ambassadors, and it goes back to this whole notion that digital is culture, and digital is redefining marketing in ways that we haven't even seen."

What's the point? The Twitterati sure are good at hyping up all things new and different, especially when they're given free drinks in the process, but it's in many ways a very insulated community. Bough admitted that they're relying at this point on anecdotal "conversational metrics" to measure the success of the outreach, but said that they're also hoping to learn.

"The depth of relationships that we're building, the opportunities that we're providing for people...what's important there is the platforms that come out of that continued conversation," Bough said, "be it the bands that are going to lead music for the next year or the films at the next Sundance. The cultural relevance of what comes out of that event is so huge, and the same thing happens with SXSWi."