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‘Empire’ Building: Pepsi Returns in and Around Fox’s Musical Drama

After inserting itself into the plot of one of TV’s most-watched dramas in 2015, Pepsi hopes to rule Fox’s “Empire” anew.

The popular beverage maker raised eyebrows when it worked with the 21st Century Fox-owned broadcast network and Lee Daniels, the drama’s guiding light, to weave its flagship potable into a three-part story arc that resulted in character Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) appearing in a special commercial break featuring a Pepsi ad that was also a capper to the storyline. Now, the soda giant will pour something else: digital video series that give “Empire” fans more plot and background to the show, all the while embedding a Pepsi reference into the TV-show narrative.

Both sides were pleased by the 2015 execution, but “it’s old news. The challenge is to reinforce the association while remaining fresh and vibrant,” said Bruce Lefkowitz, executive vice president of ad sales for Fox Networks Group, in comments sent via email. “Expanding the offering beyond the linear execution allows it to live in other platforms and extend the association with the content.”

It’s a technique Fox has employed elsewhere on its schedule. In the drama “Star”  – not-so-coincidentally an “Empire” spin-off also supervised by Daniels –  viewers  have watched as the three lead characters, vie to win time on the fabled “Honda Stage” at a fictional Atlanta music festival. Meanwhile, American Honda has sponsored an eight-part digital-video series related to the main show.

For many years, advertisers were more than satisfied when they scored an exclusive placement – known in industry lingo as an “integration” – in a prominent program. In an era when more viewers are likely to watch their favorite program on a screen other than the television set, however, scoring an in-program cameo is no longer enough.

The promotion kicks off in the show itself, which returns to the air on Wednesday, March 22.  Tinashe, the singer-songwriter who was named part of Pepsi’s “Sound Drop” music-promotion program, will make a cameo in “Empire” working alongside Jamal Lyon, who will be developing. a new project, a musical tribute. Viewers will be prompted to follow that storyline by seeking out a weekly video series on “Empire’s” Facebook and Instagram pages. Other characters – Porsha (Ta’Rhonda Jones) and Becky Williams (Gabourey Sibide) will also appear in that program, along with musician Jidenna.

As the season progresses, Pepsi will in April make available six limited-edition collectible cans festooned with artwork inspired by the show and created by artist Jon Moody. Fans who scan the artwork with their phones can use Shazam to find behind-the-scenes footage  from the set of Jamal’s tribute.

Viewers will be rewarded for following it all by season’s end. In May, “Empire” will close its third-season plot with Jamal’s project, titled, “When Cookie Met Lucious, featuring Jamal.” The show will have an on-screen “unveil” of the work, but also direct viewers in one episode to stream Jamal’s entire work by using Shazam and a mobile device. Songs from season two and three will be featured.

Pepsi, like many TV advertisers, seems to realize that just because a show is only on the air once a week doesn’t mean its fans stop engaging with it. Other marketers have in recent years experimented with programming that is distributed via social media that can be consumed on-demand, as a fan might wish. AT&T sponsored multiple cycles of a series called “@SummerBreak” that had no linear TV component but instead played out via pieces of content placed on outlets such as YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram.

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