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Volume 20 No. 41
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PepsiMax: The adventures of 'Uncle Drew'

In the spring of 2012, Pepsi Max sent a brief to The Marketing Arm asking the firm to develop a video to underscore the product’s identity as a zero-calorie soda with bold taste. The brand team wanted to feature one of its newest endorsees, Kyrie Irving, a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers, in the video.

The Marketing Arm’s vice president of content development, Marc Gilbar, read the brief and recalled the 1984 “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which Eddie Murphy went undercover as a white man. He thought doing something similar with Irving would be fun.

“We just thought, ‘What if we dressed him up as an 80-year-old man?’” Gilbar said. “On the surface, he’d be an 80-year-old man, but he could dunk and still play. That’s what the Pepsi Max brief was all about: You look at it and see one thing, but inside was something different.”

The Pepsi Max brand liked the idea of taking Irving undercover at a pickup game and approved a small budget for the video, but Gilbar and his

A Hollywood makeup artist helped transform Kyrie Irving into Uncle Drew.
team had no idea if they could pull it off. Could Irving commit to four hours of makeup? Would the makeup be good enough? Could Irving act? Would people buy it?

The agency spoke to Irving’s agent, Jeff Wechsler, and got the point guard to commit to the video. Then it hired Ed French, one of Hollywood’s best makeup artists. The goal was to make Irving look like a cross between Morgan Freeman and Bill Russell.

“Midway through the makeup process, we started to think, ‘This could work,’” Gilbar said. “He started to look old. He would get out of the chair for a bathroom break and walk hunched over. He’d talk about the game ‘back in the day.’ He found this character.”

The Marketing Arm took Irving to a suburban New Jersey basketball court. The agency had set the table for the video by saying that a film crew was coming to shoot a documentary on a local high school coach named Kevin. They got everyone at the court to sign waivers, and midway through a game had a guy on Kevin’s team go down with an injury.

“Yo, we need another player,” Kevin said. “I think my Uncle Drew could play.”

“For real?!?” someone asks.

Irving comes out on the court and dogs it for two minutes, and then starts to make a few jumpshots, picks up a steal and eventually dunks the ball. He wore a microphone and throughout the game taunted the other players, calling them “young bloods.”

“That elevated it to a whole new level,” Gilbar said. “It wasn’t just an old guy. It was an old guy talking smack to kids.”
The video lasted only 4 minutes and 58 seconds. When it was released, Irving tweeted it, and the effort quickly gained momentum. It has received more than 30 million views and averages almost 20,000 views a day.

“If we got 1 million views we would have been thrilled,” Gilbar said. “The numbers just accumulated and exceeded our wildest expectations.”

The video was such a success that Pepsi Max is building on it. In the fashion of The Blues Brothers, who drive around putting “the band” back together, Uncle Drew is now going to play pickup games with former “teammates.” He recently took a heavily made-up Kevin Love out for a game.

The brand also used the idea for NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon. He went undercover to a local car dealership and took a terrified car salesman on a thrill ride in a Chevrolet Camaro. The video already has picked up more than 17 million views since its debut last month.

“That’s the amazing thing about Pepsi Max as a brand, their appetite to take risk,” Gilbar said. “It’s a good example of a brand being brave and taking a chance and having it work out.”

Lou Arbetter, senior director of marketing at Pepsi MAX, wrote in an email that when the brand first partnered with Irving and Jeff Gordon, PepsiMax simply thought it would be a fun project to work with the two athletes.

“It’s incredible how quickly the videos went viral and became pop-culture moments,” Arbetter said. “We allowed the content to grow organically and it truly took on a life of its own. We’re extremely happy with all the interest and conversations surrounding these properties.”