Pepsi still losing the cola wars

Pepsi’s move to revamp its image is undoubtedly bold, but it is Coca-Cola that remains truly innovative. By subtly repositioning itself around the globe and targeting its image to local markets, it makes Pepsi’s all-American, celebrity-based p

It’s disconcerting but true that a many great marketing initiatives arise by accident. People stumble upon them and only realise what they’ve created after the event. McDonald’s drive-thru, for example, was created by a franchisee with an outlet near a USAF base who discovered that air force personnel were not allowed to get out of their car while in uniform. So he allowed them to drive up to his shop and buy the stuff in their car. Now, 50 per cent of McDonald’s restaurants worldwide are drive-thrus.

Other examples include the Amex travellers cheque (created by a local staff member trying to cope with the needs of visitors to Europe), the lifestyle database (which grew out of card mailings for magazine publishers), 3M’s legendary Post-It Note, and Kao’s astonishing entry into the floppy disk market.

Perhaps Pepsi’s latest move will join this pantheon of stumbled-upon breakthroughs. The brave and bold decision to completely revamp the range’s global brand identity started out as a minor project to revamp merchandising material. But when Landor presented John Swanhaus, Pepsi’s senior vice-president for international marketing, with the brand’s visual presence across 34 countries, two things struck him. First, the strongest impression overall was white. Second, it looked insipid next to Pepsi Max’s vibrant blue. A revolutionary idea took root. Why not throw out a century of heritage and go blue?

In a market where presence is everything, Pepsi’s decision to plump for a colour that it can deploy as single-mindedly as Coke’s red, can only do it good. There’s little doubt, the $500m it’s investing in the change will pay handsome dividends. As Richard Brandt, the Landor designer in charge of the project comments: “It’s very difficult for us to take over a stadium with red, white and blue in the way that the competition does. Pepsi needs an ownable colour.”

Pepsi’s leverage of the move through PR also has to be admired. Having Concorde painted in its new livery may be a silly stunt, but the tab of 250,000 certainly bought more publicity than the equivalent number of 30-second spots.

There was also no way Pepsi could gather TV crews from 32 countries without Cindy, Claudia and André uttering inanities at a microphone for a minute or two.

However, the most striking feature of Pepsi’s global press jamboree was the emptiness of its marketers’ grand boasts. Advertising supremo Larry McIntosh waxed lyrical about Pepsi’s love of change. “Red is what was. Blue is the colour of the future,” gushed Swanhaus. While Pepsi’s competitors are “stuck in the 1800s and 1900s… we have a date with the next millennium.”

Cola wars and hype go together like honey and bees. But in reality, if anyone is ringing the changes in soft drink marketing at the moment it’s Coke. And by comparison, Pepsi’s total marketing package looks stale and confused.

Perhaps it’s deliberate obfuscation, but Pepsi hasn’t given a truly coherent explanation for its decision to replace its 12 year-old choice of a New Generation advertising slogan with the new one – Change the Script. Likewise, the future of its taste challenge is cloudy. Last year, taste was the great strategic issue. Now suddenly Pepsi is raising the issue of freshness.

Freshness? In cans of fizz? It seems so. Tucked away in the last paragraph of a four-page hyperventilating press release, is an announcement that Pepsi is introducing universal code dating on its products “to assure only the freshest, best-tasting drinks are sold in the marketplace”. Swanhaus insists that “people can taste the difference”. Is Pepsi really adding a new dimension to soft drinks marketing? If so, why treat it as an afterthought?

Another Pepsi puzzle is its brand strategy. Project Blue’s inspiration was the power of Pepsi Max. But by using blue across the range, Max’s distinct identity now looks blurred. The unavoidable impression is that Pepsi marketers can’t cope with a baby brand that is getting so big and bouncy it is knocking its tired parent off his stride.

Compare this fuzz with Coke’s clarity, and its restless questioning of past practice. A revolutionised agency line-up already under its belt, over the past year Coca-Cola has quietly dropped its famous three As (Availability, Affordability, and Acceptability) to move on to greater things. It now uses the 3Ps, of pervasive Penetration, best Price relative to value, and making Coke the Preferred beverage everywhere. “We have raised our sights,” says Coca-Cola chief executive Roberto Goizueta .

You’re not kidding. Goizueta is now mocking traditional market share speak by declaring that his main competitor is tap water. Any other share definition is “narrow,” he says. Every day, 5.7 billion people need 64 ounces of fluid to live, and Coca-Cola’s volumes currently account for less than two per cent of that share. Demand for Coke is therefore potentially “infinite”, he declares. Now that really is next-millennium vision.

Next, take advertising. Coca-Cola’s new sports campaigns dump traditional, aspirational star gazing to focus on what it feels like to be a fan. By comparison, Pepsi’s ongoing celebrity strategy looks outdated. Pepsi is also firmly stuck in Americana mode, while around the globe Coke is cleverly and subtly repositioning itself as your local friend. The imagery it is using to target cricket fans in the Indian sub-continent, for example, really do make Pepsi’s all-American icons look parochial and clichéd.

Interestingly, Pepsi still retains the clear distinction between home (American) and international (hoi polloi in the rest of the world) – a distinction which Coca-Cola has deliberately discarded. Ditto distribution. Coca-Cola has remorselessly invested in global availability for 50 years-plus. By comparison, Pepsi’s recent attempts to build a truly global distribution infrastructure are a belated catch-up exercise.

That’s also what Project Blue is: a back-handed tribute to the incredible power of Coke’s ownership of red, its contour bottle, its script and its ribbon. And judging by the cloud of marketing fog that continues to surround the brand, there’s still a lot more catching up to do.

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