Shreyas Kulkarni

Cola switcheroo: Pepsi and Coca-Cola trade brand ambassadors yet again

Although this kind of coveting is no sin, can the swaps move the cola brands' bottom lines?

There is incredible comfort in monotony. Be it Sachin Tendulkar batting with an MRF bat, Amul releasing a new hoarding every week, or in recent years, Virat Kohli recommending MRF ZLX tyres for sheet comfort and long life, seeing these ads and people subtly remind you that everything is alright.

However, over the past three weeks, Pepsi and Coca-Cola have junked monotony for a wild surprise. The two have signed each other’s brand ambassadors and released ads in the space of a couple of weeks not months or even a year.

Talk about scratching your heads and wondering what is happening to the cola category.

Tiger Shroff, who until last year, was dancing in Pepsi ads with Disha Patani, shed that avatar, donned a red jacket and was seen lost drinking Coke Zero in an ad less than 15 days ago.

A few days later, Ranveer Singh, last seen doing what not to grab hold of a bottle of Coca-Cola’s Thums Up, was dancing and giving pep talks to the youngsters in a Pepsi ad; it takes one back to the brand’s youngistaan roots before it switched to swag with Salman Khan.

Khan himself had moved from Thums Up to Pepsi while Shah Rukh Khan had switched allegiance to Thums Up from long-time partner Pepsi. Ranbir Kapoor too broke his bond with Pepsi and moved to Coca-Cola.

This swapping of stars, usually a gradual event which would take years, has happened in the blink of an eye. To say it was unexpected is an understatement.

Lloyd Mathias says brands sign celebrity endorsers for two reasons. One, it helps them cut the clutter and two, the social media presence of the celebrity can amplify the ad which is put out.

Mathias, a business strategist and former PepsiCo executive, feels signing a rival’s endorser is a “lazy way out and lacks imagination”.

Also Read: Tiger Shroff loses himself to Lata Mangeshkar and Coke Zero

The cola category, he explains, is a big advertiser and people notice and remember ads. When you use a celebrity, “it is important for the campaign to be powerful and resonate with your brand. Some part of the celebrity should rub off on your brand than just using them for star power,” he asserts.

Cola switcheroo: Pepsi and Coca-Cola trade brand ambassadors yet again

And what is the bottom line?

Whatever a brand does or shows is related to the bottom line. A Coca-Cola or a Pepsi will want its sales to rise, nothing else.

Memorable brand campaigns — Aamir Khan's Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola or Shah Rukh in Oye Bubbly for Pepsi — can move the needle, and for this to happen, one needs to see a substantial and sometimes lengthy relationship between a brand and its endorser.

“I do not think brands are made by celebrities but by ideas. If your brand idea is strong, you can use anyone as long as the idol’s values match with the brand,” says Arun Raman, chief intelligence officer, Grey Group India. 

For him, the celebrity is the top line but the brand is the baseline. “Are you offering something unique like taste, emotional benefit… since you’re not differentiating at a brand level, you are differentiating at face level,” he states.

Raman goes on to say the biggest problem lies in thinking “who best can represent my idea?” rather than “what best can represent my idea? That’s where idea and icon battle come in.”

“Start with what and not who,” prods the chief intelligence officer.

Waning star power?

Actor Shah Rukh Khan, on a show a few years ago, claimed to its host Anupam Kher, “I am the last of the stars.” In retrospect, Khan’s words ring true after his action flick Pathaan emerged as the highest-grossing Hindi film of all time while other actors’ movies successfully failed to make a dent in box office collections.

The miserable run at the movies must have spilt over to the celebrity brand endorsement universe. Or else how does one explain the ease and nonchalance with which the two actors switched sides? Did they not foresee the dissonance their move could create among viewers? What were going on in the brands' boardroom meetings?

Sandeep Goyal does not agree that star power is on the wane. He believes "it is all about the money and that celebrities have no loyalty to any brand.”

The managing director of Rediffusion feels for the cola brands because, for them, a “few celebrities have that mass appeal and raw power… the choices are down to three or four people… In the old days you’d be miles away from a competitor’s face, how does it matter today… it is a marriage of convenience.”

It all boils down to whether the actor is out of contract. Sukesh Nayak, chief creative officer, Ogilvy told us in February 2023 in a story that Coca-Cola was keen to sign Tiger Shroff and when they heard he was available, they did just that.

Tuning up the nostalgia

A look at the Coca-Cola ads over the years and the last Pepsi ad starring Singh spit out common tunes – the oldies, the classics, the nostalgia.

Singh and a remixed version of Yahan Ke Hum Sikandar up the energy in the few days old Pepsi ad while Tiger Shroff loses himself to Coke Zero and the late Lata Mangeshkar’s Hothon Pe Bas.

Tune back a few years to Ranbir Kapoor’s two ads for Coca-Cola and remixed tracks of Inteha Ho Gayi Intezaar Ki and Koi Yahan Aha Nache Nache hit you with a delicious dose of nostalgia.

Sure, the potency of music from the good times is incredible but there is more to it than only this consumer insight.

“Big record labels own several catalogues of songs, especially old ones and they get revenue every time they get the song licensed, either as originals or remixed or by reproducing them," says composer Karan Malhotra. He has composed tunes and jingles for CRED, Netflix, JioMart, Zepto, and smallcase, among others.

And the revenue is not any ordinary amount. The rights to these songs can “range anything between from Rs 20 lakh to Rs 90 lakh,” revealed Afshan Hussain Shaikh, a director from Good Morning Films who helmed the Coke Zero ad.

It is undoubtedly a win-win situation for everyone. The brand is happy to pay the money, the record company is joyous at seeing its song being licensed, and viewers are pleasantly surprised when they hear an old song after a while.

Will it turn the bottom line green? Well, that is still a question still worth a few debates and quarterly results. Until then, excuse me while I go ahead and stream Tu Tu Hai Wahi.

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