Ruchira Jain
Guest Article

Oye bubbly: voice of youth or open happiness?

For many consumers globally, and especially in India – the bubbles are now uncool, says our guest author.

Let me start with a confession. I have been an ardent admirer of Pepsi since my youth. I deeply connected with what the brand stood for even as I was, perhaps, only an irregular consumer of the soft drink category. (In fact, in India, the love for this brand has always far exceeded its actual consumption.)

As ‘The Next Generation’ brand, Pepsi stood for a youthful spirit of challenging the status quo towards progress and growth. It was a change agent.

Till the time the soft drink category was aspirational, the brand and the category were in sync. For Pepsi, the cola bubbles were symbolic of this very youthful spirit at a deeper semiotic level.

However, over the last several years – as the consumers have become more aware, the availability of “better-for-you” alternatives have grown, and the consumer relevance of the category has been steadily diminishing. The declining category relevance impacts growth of brands like Coke too.

However, Coke, as a brand, is anchored in celebrating tradition and, in its case, the sweet bubbles are symbolic of the sweetness and joy of our relationships. The moments of social fun still find some relevance for a cola drink.

Ruchira Jain
Ruchira Jain

Hence, for Coke, there is no dichotomy in terms of its inherent core and the product category it is anchored in. Whereas for Pepsi – there is a much deeper dissonance with its core purpose of being a voice of change, in it being tied down to the fizzy cola drink.

For many consumers globally, and especially in India – the bubbles are now uncool and their deeper symbology representing the youthful spirit, has weakened considerably.

Yeh dil maange more: buying belief systems not just a cola!

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Simon Sinek

We continue to live in times of social turmoil, with many questions around the state of world affairs and our role in shaping this world. The brand purpose of Pepsi, as being the voice of change and a voice of creating a future full of possibilities, resonates even louder. This implies a huge headroom for growth for this brand.

Within beverages itself – Pepsi could stand for a beverage of the “the next generation” – a product like LifeWater, or an iced coffee, perhaps? Its equity transcends far beyond beverages, and it can be a lifestyle or fashion brand spanning multiple product categories.

Few brands have a purpose that the “youth” can relate to globally; perhaps Nike – Just do it! Or Apple – Think Different! However, like most traditional businesses with deep investments in the product category, the company chooses to play into the existing product category, while the consumers buy into a brand.

Change the game

The recent incident, where Portuguese football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo moved two Coca-Cola bottles during the Euro 2020 press conference, may not have anything to do with the correlation being drawn to Coca-Cola’s performance on the Wall Street. But it is certainly telling of his personal view of the category and, perhaps, of many other less influential consumers.

How many of us have reduced consumption of products like Pepsi and Coke? Of course, the category will continue to have relevance for certain cohorts and consumption occasions, and the cola giants can continue to milk that consumption.

Shouldn’t the cola giants fast-track their efforts to transform their portfolio? Even the regulatory environment for this category has tightened, with higher taxation and stronger labelling legislation against fizzy, sugary drinks in many markets.

Pepsi started its transformation journey much earlier than Coca-Cola, and with much higher investment and focus, as it bought and integrated the brands Quaker and Tropicana in its portfolio. Isn’t it opportune to signal a stronger and bolder transformation in the interest of protecting long-term shareholder value?

Or do we want a 'Tesla' to happen in the beverage space?

Why did Tesla break in and change the auto industry versus established automakers? Across categories, disruptive innovation is led by new entrants versus incumbents with deep investments in existing technology.

Amazon disrupted the retail industry versus a brick-and-mortar heavy retail giant like Walmart. Netflix disrupted the entire entertainment ecosystem, with its video subscription model, versus the large studio networks, or even Blockbuster.

Until the cola giants are bold enough to self-disrupt, players like Danone, with its STōK Cold Brew Coffee, or Mizone, or much lesser known brands will continue to outgrow them.

As a brand lover, I certainly hope Pepsi can continue to be a change agent. Yehi hai right choice, baby, aha!

The author Ruchira Jain leads her own marketing insights consultancy, Elevate Insights. This article was first published on LinkedIn and has been reproduced with permission.