The Cola Wars: the Cherry Pepsi coup

The cherry-flavoured race was one of the events that shows the intensity of the battle between Pepsi and Coke.

The Cola Wars peaked in the 1980s. As those who were part of it recall, Pepsi’s strategy was to keep Coke off-balance and reacting to Pepsi, to test Coke’s defenses and find its weak spots. Coke showed its vulnerability in April 1985 with the launch of New Coke, a reformulation panned by consumers and considered by many to be one of the biggest marketing blunders of all time.
Edelman Digital Chicago president Rick Murray, who was brand manager and group product manager at Pepsi-Cola Canada from 1984 to mid-1989, says, “The New Coke move and Pepsi’s response to that was one of two or three major catalysts that vaulted Pepsi to overall leadership in Canada.”
Just a few months later, one of those catalysts was on the drawing board – the Cherry Pepsi coup. The CEO of Coke Canada was quoted in a newspaper as saying the company would be launching Cherry Coke in Winnipeg and Vancouver in about eight weeks.
Pepsi immediately mobilized. Murray and Jay Bertram from the JWT account team were given the task of beating Coke to market with Cherry Pepsi.
Bertram, now president of TBWAToronto, says the launch of Cherry Pepsi really shows the intensity of the battle between Pepsi and Coke.
“Everything we did on that launch had to be taken off-site. We had to do everything in London (England). It was very top-secret at a time when things weren’t kept quite as confidential as they are now. We even had a code name for it.”
Murray says that Pepsi researchers had already been working on flavoured Pepsi formulations, but the team still had to fine-tune it and come up with packaging and advertising.
“From about Sept. 1 to Oct. 15, we nailed the product, developed a brand proposition, developed and shot the advertising, developed the packaging and got the Pepsi bottlers all fired up. We beat Coke to market by two weeks.”
Cherry Pepsi was launched with the tagline, “Grab a taste of the good life!” The TV spot featured a pop-music theme song, slot machine visuals and teens having fun.
Cherry Pepsi is no longer available in Canada but is marketed as Wild Cherry Pepsi in the U.S. There are several Facebook pages devoted to Cherry Pepsi, including one that describes itself as the “official” petition to bring the product back to Canada.

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Timeline – Pepsi in Canada: the first 75 years

Pepsi in Quebec – deep roots