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The Whiteboard: With another campaign, Pepsi battles bulletproof brand of Coke

By , - Last modified: May 25, 2012 at 11:23 AM

If Pepsi-Cola were a baseball team, it would undoubtedly be the Atlanta Braves. The Braves had an incredible run of success from 1991-2005 in which they won their division 14 times in row. But although they made it to the World Series five times in that period, they won only once, in 1995.

PepsiCo Inc., the company, is highly successful, has grown dramatically over decades and has diversified into literally hundreds of beverage brands as well as snack foods and, for a time, restaurants. According to Business Week, 63 percent of PepsiCo revenue comes from food products and only 37 percent from beverages.

But when it comes to the Cola Wars, Pepsi has won a few battles but keeps losing the war to the big dog, Coke. It is continually forced to retreat, rethink and then relaunch its cola brand.

In 2011, after decades of being a strong No. 2 brand in the huge category of soft drinks, Pepsi was passed by Diet Coke and is now Numero Tres. And while Avis famously made being No. 2 somewhat more appealing by claiming to be more bushy-tailed, no brand has made a credible appeal that being No. 3 is a selling point.

A little over three years ago, Pepsi attempted to jump-start its sales with a massive campaign marked by a new logo, new package design and an all-new advertising and marketing campaign using the slogan “Refresh.” Unfortunately, it didn’t, um, work, and Pepsi’s slide continued.

Brad Jakeman, Pepsi’s president of global enjoyment and chief creative officer, described the problem this way in a recent Ad Age article: “Because we haven’t had an enduring piece of brand language, we just attached different things to the logo all the time.”

I believe the real insight of that statement is his reference to “enduring brand language,” something Coke has and clearly Pepsi has lost. Coke, in fact, also attaches different things to its logo as well, but the difference is that its brand has stayed on the core brand message of providing a little bit of joy or happiness in every serving of Coke. That is a message that has, indeed, “endured” since the days of the “I’d like to teach the world to sing …” ad campaign in the 1970s. Coke’s current slogan, “Open Happiness,” is that rare example of a very literal statement of brand essence that works as a slogan.

Pepsi’s best success in the past came from its positioning as the cola for youth seeking their own identity. It was embodied in the powerful Pepsi Generation concept, which at the time just happened to target the most dynamic demographic ever, Baby Boomers. Perhaps inspired by that strategy, and certainly desperate for a big play, Pepsi is introducing a new campaign with the tagline, “Live for Now,” which appeals to a youthful sense of experience that could be broader than simply a younger demographic. Jakeman justifies the strategy in the same Ad Age article, saying the company’s research led it to the conclusion that Coke is timeless and Pepsi is timely.

Timeless sounds like a pretty good place to be if you’re a brand, and I expect Coke would largely agree with Mr. Jakeman’s observation that it is more timeless than Pepsi. But give Pepsi credit for taking a hard look at the competition and the marketplace and finding a place that its brand can own. After all, Coke isn’t just a good brand that happens to be leading the market, it’s the most valuable brand in the world, according to many arbiters of the term. Yet “Live for Now” appears to be based on a better core strategy than the “Refresh” campaign relied on for creative inspiration.

The bad news for both Coke and Pepsi is that the soft drink category has been shrinking for years as consumers drink more water and alternative beverages, often driven by health concerns. However, what’s left is still a vast and valuable market with plenty of sales and profit to be had.

Although Pepsi would never admit it, my guess is that it will consider the “Now” or “timely” brand strategy to be a success if it can regain its No. 2 slot on the soft drink ladder. There are, after all, worse things than being the Atlanta Braves of colas. Just ask Orioles or Pirates fans.

David Taylor is president of Lancaster-based Taylor Brand Group, which specializes in brand development and marketing technology. Contact him via

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