Coke vs. Pepsi: A very commercial rivalry

Pepsi’s recent controversial commercial may be off the air, but the bad taste it left in consumers’ mouths still lingers.

In early April 2017, Pepsi, the giant soda company, released an ad targeted to millennials that portrayed the era’s protest culture and aimed at the idea that Pepsi could bring everyone, despite their differences, together. What was meant to be a lighthearted ad about unity and peace was slammed by ad executives, TV pundits, and most importantly, the internet, as out of touch and completely tone-deaf. The company was accused of trivializing important causes like Black Lives Matter as a way of selling more soda. Within 24 hours of the commercial’s initial release, the company pulled the commercial from the airwaves and released an apologetic statement condemning their own ad. In an ironic twist, the shared hatred of the ad brought diverse groups of people together, though it didn’t help Pepsi’s sales. The brands stocks plummeted in the aftermath of the controversy. While the conversation Pepsi was attempting to start is a noble one, the execution of the ad failed it miserably.

The protest portrayed in the ad was generic, the decision to cast model and reality TV star Kendall Jenner as the leader of said protest was off-putting, and, perhaps worst of all, the idea that a can of soda could end a violent protest and unite protesters with police is laughable. If Pepsi’s goal was to get people talking about their product, they succeeded (sort of) – the YouTube video of the commercial amassed 1.6 million views in the first day and memes of the ad started almost immediately, and continued for weeks after. Saturday Night Live spoofed the ad in a scathing parody that very week. People were certainly talking about Pepsi, though not for the reasons they had initially hoped.

Can a can of soda change the world?

Coke vs. Pepsi: The rivalry continues

Pepsi’s big fumble brought to mind a similarly idyllic ad that rival soda brand Coca Cola produced in 1971, the famous “Hilltop” commercial. More than 40 years after its debut, people are still talking about “Hilltop”, and for good reasons. The ad was referenced in the finale of the AMC show Mad Men and it consistently makes the cut on lists of the best commercials ever made. Coke even remastered the original footage and re-released the commercial in 2016. The theme of the ad is similar to Pepsi’s attempt; it features a crowd of diverse people gathered together on a bucolic hillside with bottles of Coca Cola singing “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”. So why is Coke’s unity ad considered iconic while Pepsi’s was immediately reviled? The simple answer: execution.

Instead of using a bottle of Coke to bring people together in a big event, a diverse group of people simply gathered together to share their differences and commiserate over soda. Coke wasn’t the stimulus for the unity displayed in the commercial, people were. Coke’s ad is about people coming together in peace and harmony as a way to sell soda, not the other way around. That thought, combined with a catchy song, is what makes the commercial iconic.

Can soda change the cultural landscape?

Brands should use caution when tiptoeing the line between social commentary and social activism. Forward thinking brands are rewarded for taking a stand when consumers sense it is authentic. But companies are punished when people detect commerce behind the public social message. Things are not as simple as they were in 1971.

It could be argued that the success of Coca Cola’s ad in 1971 and the failure of Pepsi’s ad in 2017 is a difference in eras. In 1971, the Vietnam War was in full swing, with anti-war and women’s rights protests arising all over the country. It was a turbulent time that “Hilltop” was attempting to pacify. 2017 has seen a resurgence of social movements and terror attacks have launched a new era of global turbulence, something Pepsi wished to capitalize on with their Kendall Jenner-starring ad. What Pepsi failed to recognize is that, no matter the year, a can of soda can’t change the world.

commercial, Pepsi
The not-so-memorable Kendall Jenner commercial from Pepsi.

Don’t bury Fast Food yet.

Cancel the funeral for fast food. When McDonald’s revealed their same-store sales growth and revenue for the first financial quarter of 2017 this past April, the numbers surprised even their own CEO. In just a few months, the golden arches earned $5.68 billion in sales (beating their $5.53 billion expectations) and their domestic same-store sales growth had risen 1.7 percent, a far cry from the 0.8 percent decline the company had anticipated.

In a dining landscape that more and more frequently favors fresh, local ingredients and farm-to-table menu concepts, these numbers are thrilling for the overcrowded and much-maligned fast food industry. Such growth is a reminder to other fast food restaurant chains that in an age where customers have more dining options than ever, the industry must think outside the box in order to set themselves apart. For McDonald’s, that means focusing on four pillars (menu innovation, store renovations, digital ordering and deliver) in order to retain long-time customers and re-introduce themselves to consumers that moved on a long time ago.

In their successful first quarter of 2017, McDonald’s attempted to capture attention in an increasingly overcrowded marketplace with big announcements and enticing limited time offers. The company announced that they would no longer be serving frozen beef patties on their burgers (something other burger juggernauts like Wendy’s have been claiming to offer for years). McDonald’s also rolled out three different sizes of their classic Big Mac, offered $1 soft drinks and $2 McCafe beverages, and expanded all-day breakfast offerings. In other words, smart uses of LTOs and a commitment to healthier options, along with the value and convenience that a fast food restaurant represents, are doing their part to save Ronald and his pals from extinction.

The industry isn’t slowing down; if anything, they’re doing everything they can to grow, evolve and stay relevant.

How fast food keeps getting off the mat

A huge part of the fast food industry’s success on both global and domestic levels is the familiarity and comfort the restaurants provide. Consumers can walk into the Pizza Hut down the street from their house or one in Hong Kong, for example, and have a similar experience; they know what they’re getting themselves into. In an age where consumers have so many choices, that comfort can go a long way. The reasons fast food became a dominant part of the food landscape in the first place hold true – people want food quickly and cheaply. It doesn’t matter if that food is processed or higher in calories than a health-conscious population would perhaps like it to be.

Such reasons, and many others, are why the U.S. fast food industry grossed $200 billion in 2015. That is a far cry from the $6 billion the industry earned back in 1970. The industry isn’t slowing down; if anything, they’re doing everything they can to grow, evolve and stay relevant. That desire for relevancy includes going after the most coveted marketing demographic: millennials. Fast food chains have joined the home delivery bandwagon, partnering with companies like Postmates to bring their cheap and convenient eats to consumers’ homes.

Don’t bury me, I’m not dead yet.

Recently, McDonald’s released some inspired advertising targeting that same demographic. The company tapped actress Mindy Kaling (the internet’s best friend) to star in a series of commercials. The twist? The ads never once mention the name of the restaurant they’re promoting, focusing instead on aspects of the recognizable brand that we know to be true. The ads prove that McDonald’s has the name recognition and savvy to evolve with the times and make their case for continued relevancy.

McDonald’s recent successes are proof that the fast food industry is not dead, nor is it going anywhere anytime soon. The upward tick in the industry will likely continue, but only if restaurants take big steps to change and grow with the dining landscape. What’s gotten them this far won’t take them any farther, and the industry would do well to remember that.