One of the intriguing stories swirling around the Super Bowl last week was the fact that Pepsi, a mainstay of Super Bowl advertising, chose not to participate in the high-buck (and high-exposure) affair for the first time in 23 years. The more interesting side to this story is what Pepsi has chosen to do instead of running Super Bowl ads. The Pepsi Refresh Project will dole out a reported $20 million dollars to people, businesses, and non-profits with ideas that will have a positive impact in one of six categories: Health, Arts & Culture, Food & Shelter, The Planet, Neighborhoods and Education. Project ideas are posted to the Refresh Project website, and the public has the opportunity to vote on their favorites on the program website. The top ten vote-getters every month advance to a review process and have a shot at grants ranging from $5,000-250,000.

I first learned of the program several weeks ago when I got a Tweet urging me to support the Nada Bike Frame project which has a goal to get 1,000,000 young people to use bikes for transportation, and to teach them how to build their own bikes. At the time of this post, Nada was ranked 10th in the running for $25,000 in funding.

Aside from being a shrewd strategic marketing move—Pepsi made a powerful brand statement simply by not sleepwalking through the annual big-brand parade—the Refresh Project might signal a new trend in how corporations connect with their customers. And with more than 1,000 project ideas already submitted, Pepsi seems to have tapped into a desire among their customers to improve the world around them in creative ways. The social media strategy at play here will undoubtedly be studied: the program Facebook page has well over a half-million fans, and the front-running project proposals are clearly leveraging social media to promote their idea.

For designers or creative professionals looking to get some seed funding for a breakthrough product or social change idea, I see the Pepsi Refresh Project as a potentially game changing concept. If more corporations follow the lead of Pepsi by converting their marketing dollars into seed funding, we could see a major change in the entrepreneurial landscape. In a time when traditional sources of funding have dried up, this innovative form of alternative funding could add a much needed boost to struggling entrepreneurs. And the crowdsourcing aspect falls right into the sweet spot of designers, because our ideas will come from a creative perspective.

Hank Wasiak, of the blog Asset Based Thinking in Action, wrote a very thorough analysis of Pepsi’s move from a strategic perspective. Click here to read Hank’s post.