Colas up the ante with new campaigns

The latest campaigns from cola giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola dig the line in the sand a little deeper by further emphasizing the personality differences the brands have systematically been building. Pepsi's is living for today and evoking the joy, fun and...

The latest campaigns from cola giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola dig the line in the sand a little deeper by further emphasizing the personality differences the brands have systematically been building. Pepsi’s is living for today and evoking the joy, fun and energy of a young generation. Coke continues to go for consumers’ hearts as the brand that spans generations, brings them together and is always there for life’s special moments. Patti Summerfield asks marketing pundits how the sodaco’s new efforts stack up.

David Martin, SVP, CD, Lanyon Phillips Communications, Vancouver

Pepsi (created by BBDO Worldwide, New York)

The Britney spot is classic Pepsi: grab the latest pop sensation, build a big production around them, then let the sheer force of media tonnage and the star’s own [energy] pound the message home. It’s the heavy rotation approach used by radio station programmers when they want to drive a single up the charts.

‘The joy of cola’ is a throwaway line, but who cares? Pepsi has always been pop, in every respect: the star of the moment, top-40 AM radio tracks, MTV shooting and editing, with style cues lifted from the posters on teenage bedroom walls. Pepsi has mastered the art of catching cultural bubbles as they rise, maximizing exposure at the peak of their popularity, then quickly moving on to the next big thing. And, like all things pop, this approach results in a creative product that is slick, entertaining and catchy to the point of even being irresistible. All this is balanced against an extremely short shelf life. Whatever the trade-off, it seems to work well for Pepsi, as it has for most of the last two decades.

Coke (created by McCann-Erickson Worldwide)

All which brings me to the latest campaign from Coke, which debuted around the world on April 22. I wanted to like this campaign, not just because I happen to like Coke. There are dog people and there are cat people. I think the same can be said about soft drinks. You’re either a Pepsi person, or a Coke person. I’ve always preferred the taste of Coke, and maybe for that reason, I’ve always felt closer to its advertising.

Unfortunately, the new pool came as a disappointment.

Coke’s new campaign line ‘Life tastes good’ replaces the theme line launched just 18 months ago: ‘Enjoy,’ which, in turn bumped out ‘Always,’ which eclipsed…you get the picture. And while the campaign line hasn’t usually been the most critical part of Coke advertising, as with ‘Coke is it,’ for example, the vague promise this one communicates might be seen as the first indication that a big idea isn’t at home here.

What Coke and McCann were looking for were universal, human truths – simple, unvarnished moments from ordinary life in which the brand plays a natural part. What they got was, simply, ordinary.

The casting is exactly what you would expect from Coke – wholesome, real people across a wide range of ethnicity and age. The production values are excellent. The music tracks are polished, albeit not exceptionally memorable.

One of the U.S. spots features Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers in a backstage, post-concert moment of reflection. He sips a Coke, drinking in the moment, then returns on stage for an encore with his band. A Dylan shilling for Coke? The ’60s suddenly really do seem so last century. It’s the only spot in the pool that uses any kind of celebrity, as well as the only one that doesn’t use a version of the new ‘Life tastes good’ music track. Ironically, it’s probably the best spot in the pool.

These spots don’t feel like they were crafted by writers. The hand of overzealous account strategists eager to create a unified global campaign platform seems to have pried the pen from their grasp. It’s a shame, because the rationale behind the campaign is sound, and for Coke, completely appropriate. The campaign creators talk about ‘magic,’ ‘storytelling’ and ‘special moments.’ Unfortunately, none of this is evident on screen.

In order to be interesting to anyone beyond the person telling it, a story needs to have – how do I put this gently – a story. It needs a dramatic arc, a pivot point, an emotional climax. It doesn’t need to be epic, or even have words. But what it must have is a moment; a single point of emotion that breaks down the screen and fires straight to the heart of the viewer.

Coke has been there before, many times. ‘Hilltop,’ ‘Mean Joe Green’ or any one of the classic ‘Coke is it’ spots from the ’70s qualify. By contrast, the new Coke ads seem joyless and empty.

Craig Baxter, director of marketing, DeWalt Canada (division of Black & Decker Canada), Toronto


I think the Coke campaign is consistent with their more conservative brand character just as the new Pepsi spot is very consistent with their active and young at heart brand character. This engineered difference is critical to the success of each mega-brand. Interestingly, both are also the ‘slice of life’ format that we have become so accustomed to with emotionally driven brands. Therefore, neither has deviated significantly from the strategy we have seen over the last several years.

Will the new storytelling ads cut through the clutter of ads positioned against their older more conservative cola consumer? That remains to be seen. I think it is unlikely that the Coke ad will become a watercooler discussion like the recent Molson ads. This is certainly a crude way of measuring the ‘breakthrough’ factor. However, if the goal is to ‘relate’ to their middle-aged consumer through a ‘story,’ they have succeeded. The question really is whether that strategy is right for growing the brand.


On the other hand, the new Pepsi ads with Britney do a superior job of cutting through the clutter and reinforcing their brand character or imagery. I think any ad with North America’s most popular female pop star would do the same. The celebrity angle seems to have worked well previously and this execution will be no different. The question for Pepsi is whether that segment remains the right one to target. I would think capturing the cola consumer early still remains the smart choice. I am quite sure both ads are on strategy, but I definitely think that the ‘choice of a new generation’ did a superior job of executing against their strategy and should realize more growth against their targeted segment.

Bruce Philp, partner, Garneau Wurstlin Philp Brand Engineering, Toronto


I would argue that Britney is probably a better choice than Michael Jackson was. Michael Jackson was just a star but Britney Spears really embodies all the things that Pepsi claims to be, the things it claims to stand for.

It really is a two-horse race at that level and Pepsi has decided to be the one that is younger, more energetic and sexier.

Coke has decided to be the one that’s more authentic, more internal, more real.

Britney Spears is the perfect choice. She is sexy, she’s young – almost uncomfortably both of those things. She’s the Pepsi generation all over again.

Paul Brennan, marketing manager Sleeman Brewery, Guelph, Ont.


When I look at the stuff that Pepsi is doing, it’s very high-energy, exciting and certainly appealing to a younger target. The message to me is a little bit lost. It says nothing to me. It’s a music video, it doesn’t tell me anything about the brand. It says big budgets: look how much we spent.

No one could criticize them for having boring advertising. You watch that ad but just at the end of it, you’re just not sure what the message is. Even in the younger end of the beer market – 19- to 24-year-olds – there’s an incredible amount of savvy and cynicism. I think we’re past the age where you get Jack Benny to come on and say, ‘I drink this product, and everyone drinks that product.’

I’m not sure that type of celebrity endorsement is viewed the same way it might have been 10 years ago. I think people realize she [Spears] is a paid shill essentially and that she may or may not even drink Cola product. That for me also disconnects. Just sticking a celebrity on something doesn’t necessarily have meaning anymore.


I look at the Coca-Cola message and at least the message comes through to me that they recognize that Coca-Cola is ubiquitous enough that everyone knows what the brand is. It’s well beyond talking about what’s in it or anything about the liquid.

They’re saying it’s ubiquitous enough that as you look back through your life it seems to be there for significant occasions. It’s appropriate and those moments are not substitutable moments with other beverages. You wouldn’t put a private-label cola in one of those moments. It just doesn’t work. I look at that and it’s a return to me, rather than a new direction for Coca-Cola.

I think the tag, ‘Life Tastes Good,’ is taking it too seriously. It means nothing to me because it’s so over the top. But from a campaign perspective, I think it’s interesting because for me it harkens back to ‘Mean Joe Green’ and that kind of Coca-Cola moment. I think it tells me a bit about what they think their brand is all about.

The train (Long Island Railroad) spot appeals equally to the kid heading into summer and going to be graduating and moving away from his friends as it does to someone who lived that experience 15 or 20 years ago and still remembers what it was like to go through that moment. There’s an emotive bond in there that says this product is so part of life in North America and the world, it’s somehow in that moment. When I look back, Coke is there.

Another spot in that campaign, a young flower girl and a bride, almost speaks equally about how important that moment is to both of them. There’s that sense of connection that it doesn’t really matter what end of that spectrum you’re in, the message is ‘this is Coca-Cola’ – that ubiquitous brand that has always been there. ‘Always Coca-Cola’, the tagline in the campaign leading into this one is another way of saying that. Quite frankly, I think they’d be better with ‘Always Coca-Cola’ with this campaign.

Rick Padulo, chair and CEO, Padulo Integrated, Toronto


From the consumer’s point of view, Pepsi really is the joy of cola, even though the line is now ‘The Joy of Pepsi.’ I suppose they went for stronger branding by changing ‘Cola’ to ‘Pepsi.’ Either way, they own this territory lock, stock and barrel.

The reason is consistency. They’ve stuck to their guns, and they continue to keep hitting the consumer right between the eyes with the message that Pepsi is joy, and joy is best expressed by youth. The youth component of Pepsi’s message is really paying off. It’s worked in the past, it worked with the little girl who could change her voice, and now they’re staying the course with Britney Spears.

Sure, the new commercial is just Britney on stage singing and dancing, but that’s how simple Pepsi’s message is. Britney’s young, glamorous, and fun, plus it’s Britney that delivers the Pepsi jingle. Bang on strategy. You have to hand it to Pepsi – this is a jingle I’ll bet almost everyone knows, and the words are ‘ba ba ba ba bah … The joy of Pepsi.’ Simple is always better. I think it’s working, because it looks like Pepsi’s actually forced Coke into a new positioning.


Coke’s new positioning is not so simple. It’s a bit more sophisticated. Looking at the creative, I got the impression Coke has had to find new ground to occupy, so they’re owning life’s poignant moments. They did a particularly good job on the ‘Long Island Railroad’ spot – youth, but youth experiencing a meaningful moment. Same for the surfing commercial. A little sappy, but again, they’re carving out territory that says, ‘If Pepsi is youth, fun and glamour, then Coke is for special, meaningful moments.’

It’s a chess game, and it feels like Coke has moved in reaction to a solid play by Pepsi. In the end, both campaigns are on strategy, and both are well executed. But Coke feels like it’s in catch-up mode. Having said that, Coke’s new territory is almost a homecoming for them, because it’s in this arena that they could potentially come up with the next ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing.’