Pepsico's Broadway bet

The soda and snacks giant is putting its market research onstage, says Fortune's Oliver Ryan.

By Oliver Ryan, Fortune writer-reporter

(Fortune Magazine) -- Candy Buckley, a Broadway stage actor acclaimed for her performance as Frau Kost in the recent Sam Mendes staging of Cabaret, is onstage portraying a martini-swilling 57-year-old mother. "I want to be healthier, but I also want a martini," laments Buckley's character. "I'm torn."

Is this the Neil Simon Theatre? Off-Broadway? Guess again: the Embassy Suites in Rogers, Ark. - Wal-Mart country. And instead of "The Iceman Cometh," tonight's play - a tale about the future of food and drink retailing in America - is being performed for the top 80 executives of Sam's Club.

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Shakespeare it's not, but the staging is part of an effort by Pepsi (Charts, Fortune 500) to show its retailers and its own sales force that it's on a health crusade. Faced with flat sales of carbonated beverages in recent years, Pepsi has been trying to balance revenues from what it calls "fun for you" foods like soda and snacks with "good for you" foods like Quaker Soy Crisps.

But changing the DNA of a $35 billion soda and salty-snacks giant is no easy feat, even internally: "PowerPoint presentations wouldn't do," says Antonio Lucio, the PepsiCo executive spearheading the effort. The company had to do something, well, dramatic. So Lucio brought in trend guru Faith Popcorn for help. When she floated the idea of turning Pepsi's market research into theater, he agreed.

Getting playwright Alex Dinelaris, a two-time Drama Desk Award nominee, onboard was another matter. At first he said no, repelled by what sounded like an embarrassing infomercial. But he relented after Lucio and Popcorn agreed they wouldn't rewrite his scripts - and PepsiCo poured $1.5 million into the project. "I was stunned," says Dinelaris.

Armed with stacks of demographic tables and reports on consumer buying trends, Dinelaris came up with a series of one-act sketches, each of which conjures an American character in the throes of a prototypical eating-habit or health-related crisis: a working mom worried about her overweight son's diet; an ex-jock who injures himself at the gym on his 45th birthday. Pepsi products rarely make an appearance.

The plays are not as hokey as they sound. When they debuted in Dallas last year in front of an audience of PepsiCo execs - including CEO Indra Nooyi - Popcorn and Dinelaris say they knew they had a hit when Nooyi herself told Dinelaris that she saw a few executives actually tear up. Soon after, Lucio booked the show for a multicity tour.

He even deemed it good enough for Wal-Mart (Charts, Fortune 500), and so the troupe recently found itself in northwest Arkansas. "Executives are [a] tough [audience]," Dinelaris winces. Still, the crowd seems riveted during the play's climax, a scene in which Buckley's daughter - played by Shelley Gershoni, who most recently appeared in an off-off-Broadway play - confesses that she has lost the battle against microwave chicken and French fries. ("I just don't have the energy.")

Would these actors rather be performing Ibsen at Lincoln Center? Sure, but as they point out, Broadway isn't exactly awash in good, steady roles for working actors these days. "This was really like a small play," says Gershoni. "It's a lot better than waiting tables or being a bartender."

Matthew Boyle contributed to this article. Top of page