‘Uncle Drew’: Branding Vehicle or Feature Film? Yes.

Posted May 3, 2018 7:52 p.m. EDT

At first glance, the movie looks like another inoffensive summer road-trip comedy. In the trailer, there are stars like Nick Kroll and Tiffany Haddish ping-ponging punch lines with Lil Rel Howery. There’s a sense of escapism along with a healthy dose of slapstick.

“Uncle Drew” may be all of that. It is also the continuation of a corporate marketing campaign for a soda company.

An unusual integration of branded content and film, the movie is built around the NBA star Kyrie Irving and is based entirely on a series of Pepsi commercials that went viral beginning in 2012. A heavily made-up Irving plays Uncle Drew, a septuagenarian driven to show up younger basketball players on the playground. He sets out to reunite with his teammates from decades ago for one more run at the Rucker Park tournament in Harlem.

Moviegoers might not realize or care that they are watching what is essentially a Pepsi commercial when they turn out for the June 29 release. Academics, meanwhile, believe “Uncle Drew” is the first feature film of its kind, taking product placement one step further in a new avenue for branding and signaling the film industry’s willingness to — ahem — play ball.

The release comes at a crucial time for Pepsi: Soda sales have declined steadily for several years as consumers have become more health-conscious. PepsiCo, the parent company overseeing brands like Mountain Dew, Tropicana and Gatorade, posted flat numbers in the final quarter of 2017, partly because of declines in its North America Beverages unit and heavy competition from Coca-Cola.

In short, Pepsi needs to tap new audiences for its product, and “Uncle Drew” is, as Rohit Deshpande, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, put it, “another salvo in the cola wars.”

The “Uncle Drew” story begins in 2011, when Irving, then a 19-year-old newcomer to the NBA, agreed to appear in a Super Bowl promotion for Pepsi. The collaboration went well and Pepsi signed him to a deal. Afterward, Pepsi’s agency partner, Davie Brown Entertainment, and Irving conceived the idea of a geriatric character who would show young players what real basketball looked like. Pepsi executives were intrigued. They wanted to shift away from traditional advertising and toward storytelling. There is a history of corporations cashing in by turning their products into films — like “The Lego Movie” or the “Transformers” franchise. Product placement has also been an integral part of the film industry going back decades. Look closely and you’ll notice James Bond’s “shaken, not stirred” martini in “Dr. No” (1962) is a Smirnoff product.

The closest thing to a precedent for “Uncle Drew” might involve Ernest P. Worrell, the character played by the comedian Jim Varney beginning in the 1980s. Ernest was a television pitchman with a Southern drawl who would begin many of his commercials by saying, “Hey Vern!” He pitched a variety of products including local news stations, buttermilk and appliances, and eventually starred in a television series and several movies, but their storylines were not based on the commercials.

With Irving’s character, Pepsi hopes to extend its brand while entertaining viewers at the same time.

“Everyone has so many marketing methods coming at them so often that it’s tough to break through,” said Lou Arbetter, the general manager of Pepsi Productions. He helped develop the original shorts. “You want to create things that people actually want to see.”

This is in line with recent research showing that consumers have grown increasingly wary of traditional advertising.

“It’s not that people don’t like ads; it’s that people don’t like being sold to,” said Beth Egan, an associate advertising professor at Syracuse University. “Millennials especially are really keen to have a relationship with brands, but that has to be a true, authentic and two-way relationship.”

In preliminary findings from a recent study led by Egan, when subjects were exposed to branded content, prominent mention of the brand increased viewers’ suspicion of the messaging.

So how do you mostly remove the brand but keep the association?

Pepsi filmed several videos, written and directed by Irving, featuring cameos from other NBA names, including Irving’s then-teammate, Kevin Love, and the retired Hall of Fame center Bill Russell. The Pepsi logo was not conspicuous other than a “Pepsi Max presents” at the beginning and some shots of spectators drinking Pepsi.

The commercials were a huge hit. The first one, released in 2012, has since racked up more than 51 million views on Pepsi’s YouTube page.

The campaign benefited both the corporation and Irving. Fans often yell his character’s name at him during games, and the talented athlete’s popularity — despite quirks like suggesting multiple times with at least a twinge of seriousness that the Earth is flat — has translated into marketability: His jersey was the fifth-highest-selling of the season.

“There’s a strong association now between Irving, ‘Uncle Drew’ and the Pepsi brand,” Deshpande said.

Fans of the shorts included the producers Marty Bowen and John Fischer from Temple Hill Entertainment, who approached Pepsi about spinning them into a film. Irving was on board. Executives at Pepsi agreed to pay for a screenplay by Jay Longino, whose credits include the 2016 film “Skiptrace,” starring Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville. Lionsgate signed on to distribute soon after. Pepsi was officially in the feature film business.

“This was just another chapter in how to bring the brand’s story to life,” Arbetter said. “Nobody has done it before, but I would venture to take a guess that this won’t be the last time.”

Principals involved with the movie insist that while the film may have originated with a company best known for its soda, the integrity of “Uncle Drew” as a film is genuine.

“I would say that you — we — would be pretty foolish to view this as a two-hour-long commercial,” Arbetter said. “I think that would not do the brand any good.”

Jim Miller, an executive vice president of Lionsgate, said: “Honestly, aside from they’re our partners, it has nothing to do with Pepsi. If there wasn’t a great story in there, we wouldn’t have engaged.”

The feature film version is an extended, fleshed-out version of the original commercials. The cast includes the retired NBA players Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller and Chris Webber, along with appearances by a who’s who of basketball. The movie was shot in a little over a month last year, mostly in Atlanta, with about a week spent in Rucker Park. If the original shorts went out of their way not to blast the Pepsi brand, the movie takes a different tack. The opening credits say the film was made “in association with Pepsi.” The Rucker Park scenes show various iterations of the brand logo surrounding the court. Kroll’s character, the villainous coach of a rival team, gives a shout-out to Pepsi during an interview with ESPN.

Pepsi and Lionsgate declined to reveal the film’s budget or the financial terms of their partnership. Arbetter would only acknowledge Pepsi’s role in funding the screenplay.

As for the film industry, will this unexpected partnership lead to more such deals? Paula Kupfer, a senior vice president at Lionsgate, said to ask her in July — after the “Uncle Drew” premiere. But she did acknowledge an emerging reality: In an era when Netflix and Amazon have become prominent players in content creation, and Facebook and Apple are taking steps to get involved, “a good idea can come from anywhere.”

There is, however, at least one potential downside for Pepsi when “Uncle Drew” is released. As Deshpande noted, “This movie is going to run in theaters where they serve Coke.”