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Pepsi ad campaign zooms in on food

With its first advertising campaign in years, the soft-drink maker is hoping to appeal to consumers' rational side

By Stuart Elliott  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The cola wars are taking an unusual twist as the Pepsi-Cola Company introduces its first campaign in years meant to offer rational reasons to drink its flagship beverage rather than intangible emotional ones. The campaign, which gets under way today, carries the theme ''Pepsi. It's the cola.'' In this television commercial by BBDO Worldwide, a young girl dressed as a hot dog finds romance with a young boy dressed as a can of Pepsi.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

The cola wars are taking an unusual twist as the Pepsi-Cola Co division of PepsiCo introduces its first campaign in years meant to offer rational reasons to drink its flagship beverage rather than intangible emotional ones.

The campaign for the Pepsi-Cola brand, which gets under way today, carries the theme "Pepsi. It's the cola." The television and radio commercials, online advertisements, billboards and store signs portray the product as hero, presenting Pepsi as the perfect accompaniment to all manner of food, like hot dogs, snack chips and pizza, and all manner of fun, like football games and dates.

Think of it as "Things go better with Pepsi," a sell almost as soft as before but with a more pointed purpose.

"It's a different approach for us," said David Burwick, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for the Pepsi-Cola North America division of Pepsi-Cola. He spoke Wednesday at a presentation of the US$150 million campaign to reporters in Midtown Manhattan.

The campaign replaces right-brain ads infused with celebrities and music that began with the theme "The joy of cola" in 1999, which became "The joy of Pepsi" in 2001. Indeed, for years, Pepsi ads have been replete with jingles, humor, stars and special effects, a far cry from the prosaic days when Pepsi was called "the kitchen cola" and ads carrying the theme "Be sociable, have a Pepsi" showed chic suburbanites grazing on hors d'oeuvres at patio parties.

"We're not walking away from celebrities, divas," Burwick said, referring to recent endorsers like the singers Britney Spears and Beyonce. "We're walking to a new strategy: Pepsi goes great with social occasions and food."

The new "It's the cola" theme, for those with a fondness for advertising trivia, echoes an old slogan for Olympia beer, "It's the water," though executives at the Pepsi creative agency -- BBDO Worldwide in New York, part of the Omnicom Group -- said they were unfamiliar with that previous pitch.

Like Olympia beer, Pepsi is seeking to give consumers tangible reasons to choose it over the myriad brands sold by rival beverage makers. That is important because Pepsi sales have slumped as consumers turned to alternative products -- some made by Pepsi-Cola -- like water, sports drinks, juices and teas.

Through the first nine months of this year, sales of Pepsi in major retail outlets fell 5.5 percent compared with the same period a year ago, said John Sicher, editor and publisher at Beverage Digest, an industry newsletter. In contrast, sales of Coca-Cola Classic, the flagship soft drink of the Coca-Cola Co, fell 2.9 percent in that time while sales of all carbonated soft drinks fell 0.1 percent.

"The challenge, and it's a huge one, is to figure out how to restart the growth of the big regular brands," said Sicher, who attended the presentation. By regular he meant sugared; brands like Diet Pepsi, Diet Coke and Diet Dr. Pepper have been growing while their caloried counterparts have been losing their fizz.

One reason colas have gone flat is that water and other drinks are being successfully peddled to shoppers with functional appeals stressing product attributes like hydration, nutrition, refreshment and taste.

"What we may have lost a little bit is the grounding: `What's the stuff for? Why do I want it? Why am I drinking it?'" said Ted Sann, chairman and chief creative officer at BBDO New York.

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