Pepsi’s UCL Final Show: Was Alicia Really Key?
The 2016 UEFA Champions League Final, held in the San Siro Stadium in Milan, may have featured many of the household names of world football, but it looked and sounded very different to previous events. Pepsi, as part of its UCL sponsorship activation, presented a live performance by US artist Alicia Keys as part of the pre-match entertainment.

With the eyes of the world focused on Milan for a moment of such sporting – if not cultural – significance, I found myself torn by Pepsi’s decision to activate the entertainment rights. On the one hand, I really wanted to see music and sport coming together on the biggest European stage, helping prove that successfully blending these twin passions was not the preserve of US sports. It would have been brilliant for everyone: the fans, the music industry, the world of sport, and – of course – the brand behind the moment.

On the other hand, I was concerned about the approach that Pepsi had taken in activating its moment: namely by its choice of artist and the material played. At our 2016 #TalkinRevolution event (where we covered the future of music and brand partnerships), we highlighted the fact that successful brand-led music campaigns generally start with the idea first and the artist second. So: was Alicia Keys chosen before or after Pepsi decided on this activation?

To be clear, I have no issue with Alicia Keys; on the contrary, she’s a loved, accomplished and highly talented artist, and the single she was promoting, ‘In Common’, is a beautiful song. She has a significant digital footprint, with 34m Facebook fans (nb. It was 38m at the original time of writing this) and 24m Twitter followers, so from the perspective of a brand ‘media buy’, the thinking is easy to understand. Reach, however, is no longer the key metric. Depth of engagement is far more important, and I don’t believe there is (or was, on the evening) a deep, authentic engagement between Alicia and the UCL’s overwhelming football fan audience. Sure, her Italian heritage may have provided Pepsi an angle for choosing her, but other than that, what was the fit? Having spent time working at Sony Music, I know for a fact that Alicia is naturally more fitting for a female audience, yet both the TV viewers and stadium spectators were largely male…

On top of this is the set-list performed by the artist. In order for music to speedily connect with an audience on an emotional level – in the limited time available at such events – what is ideally required is either a level of pre-existing familiarity with the material, or a simple, catchy hook. At the 2014 FIFA World Cup, I co-wrote and delivered the tournament’s official anthem, which played out as winners Germany were handed the World Cup Trophy. Seeing 78,000 spectators jumping up and down in unison to the track we produced was testament to the emotional engagement that the right beat or lyric – let alone choice of artist – can deliver. What Alicia focused on, however, was a performance of mostly new tracks from her recently launched album. This meant that TV viewers and the stadium audience alike were hearing predominantly new, unfamiliar music, with no in-built engagement properties, which, rather than setting an epic tone for the UCL Final, risked their pre-match set-piece generating indifference or even negativity.

The right choice of artist and the right type of material may well stem from one place: the right contract with management and/or the record label. It’s clear that the thought of audiences from 220 countries tuning into her performance at the Final would have been music to the ears of Alicia’s label, RCA (though perhaps not so much for the fans), but was this a case of the tail wagging the dog?

The UEFA Champions League Final could have been European football's equivalent to the Super Bowl Halftime and Pepsi's investment should have had measurable KPIs and a high ROI. In fact, it should have become a case study for brands to take note of. If this kind of approach is going to work for Pepsi in the future, I would suggest that the sound and feel of both the music and artist values must match the target market and the mood / state of mind of the fans and viewers. Additionally of course the brand values of the artist should mirror – or at least feel appropriate to – those of the sponsor brand. The good news is that even the mighty NFL can get it wrong: Coldplay’s back catalogue at Super Bowl 50 couldn’t compete with the upbeat, floor-filling energy of performances by Bruno (Mars) and Beyoncé.

The future of music (and related brand partnerships) at major European sport events depends on campaigns like this working. Let’s hope brands start to approach music in a more strategic manner soon. There are some incredible opportunities to make music work extremely hard for brands. It simply needs the right thought through approach.

You can hear Alicia Keys new single on Spotify here.