Hari Krishnan
Guest Article

When Underdogs Exit - A Pepsi story

From being seen alongside Michael Jackson back in the day, to today's face Salman Khan, Pepsi's history of siding with the underdog has seen a shift.

Eleven years back today, global pop culture lost its universal icon – Michael Jackson. Back then, my team at the agency JWT held a memorial tribute to MJ – who transformed the brand image of Pepsi from a cheaper-than-Coke ‘kitchen cola’ to the ‘choice of a new generation’. In fact, he was the one who gave Pepsi the right to own word ‘generation’. With bandwidth, YouTube and social media still in its infancy, the young, spirited team managed to put together a compilation of MJ’s Pepsi ads from the audio-visual department’s (yes, that room existed) archives, which was carefully kept under lock and key by the agency librarian (yes, that job existed) and a unique session was held – several people joined in, watched and enjoyed the entertaining ads together, remembering the departed star.

My personal contribution to the library were these two books, besides a few others that have disappeared over time – lost to borrowers and gifted to people I really liked, who would cherish them. Both these books contain interesting stories about the brand at different points of socio-cultural inflexion, the first one documenting Pepsi’s key role in making corporate America more inclusive in the 40’s and 50’s by getting Black persons into the boardroom; the second one, written by Mad Man Phil Dusenberry of BBDO New York on how Pepsi ideas were concocted not in the office, but during his walks from Madison Avenue to the Pepsi office a few blocks away. He writes about MJ’s own lyrics that made several memorable anthems, the most remarkable being ‘You’re the Pepsi Generation’ sung to the tune of his Grammy-grossing hit ‘Billie Jean’.

Hari Krishnan
Hari Krishnan

It was during the shoot of this commercial in 1984, a fire accident gave MJ third-degree burns in his scalp, setting off his lifelong addiction to painkillers, as per various reports and accounts. Eventually the brand and MJ parted ways, giving way to newer, younger icons of subsequent generations. The split was little to do with the accident and the lawsuits; PepsiCo decided to drop him when controversies around drug addiction and child molestation allegations against him started emerging in 1993. It was rather ironical, a brand that pushed the cause of the proverbial ‘underdog’ called Black America peaked in popularity through a Black poster boy breaking all boundaries, who ceased to be one himself.

Back to 2009 - Shah Rukh Khan, then 44, was waiting for his turn in an anteroom for his speech to the global management of PepsiCo at a Gurgaon five-star. A few months earlier I had done a commercial with him and John Abraham where a young teen, representing the new generation, asks the Bollywood stars to step aside to make way for his can of Pepsi. Later Ranbir Kapoor was signed up for endorsing the brand. There was no way he represented the new phrase we had coined for Pepsi – ‘Youngistaan’, and as an individual he is extremely self-aware to have figured out that the team was planning on retiring him gracefully.

'King Khan' as he chose to be known as, sharp and perceptive, decided to make a last-minute plea to the PepsiCo bigwigs not to retire him – as he felt he was still relevant to the new generation. In the few minutes I gave him polite company in the chamber, he lit up a smoke and chatted with me about the brand history of Pepsi – he needed an elevator speech to craft his narrative. I was more than delighted to oblige and give him a few nuggets from these two books. He walked up on stage, captured everyone’s attention with his quintessential charm - and spoke confidently about how Pepsi the brand, was a harbinger of youth revolutions; and himself, at 44, was still the most celebrated icon of Pepsi’s eternal generation of youth.

He considered himself no less than MJ in terms of stardom and popularity – in fact his Pepsi ads outnumber the ones that Jackson did. But that’s another story. He didn’t win the pitch. The brand and SRK parted ways and he in fact went on to sign up a rival brand for a season as an endorsement for this T20 team. Part of it was speculated as revenge; part was business sense that made Kolkata Night Riders the most profitable league team in the history of IPL. But the split was more to do with his underdog status – much like Jackson, he too had ceased to be one.

What was SRK’s journey that Pepsi wanted to be associated with? In the early 90’s, practically from the ‘nowhere’ called television, he appeared on the Hindi film scene. Soon he was dislodging conventional, good-looking, hairy, well-built heroes establishing rule of a new, disruptive archetype. He found acceptance from two constituencies he built painstakingly – introverted, underconfident young men and young women who were looking for sensitivity in men. There was a niche in the market; and a huge market in the niche he carved for himself.

With his heady success, the underdog was no more one. Both Pepsi and SRK had become the establishment, the new mainstream. He had come full circle – it had been two decades since he disrupted the convention; found his own way, created his own following, to succeed and overthrow the ruling predecessors. Having emerged as the new order, he was now the establishment to fresh, young, disillusioned individuals who would bring in their own way, much like he did long ago, to change the steady state.

2020 is an extremely challenging year and will create a new tribe of underdogs, with so many odds stacked against them. Things have perhaps never hit this low since 1991. Several talented young people I know are openly embracing their ‘unemployed’ status and reaching out for opportunities in this challenging period for life in general and business in particular.

Tragedies add to the gloom; there have been one too many in the past month. When icons die, the response is shock at first, followed by a gradual disappearance of hope. I cannot help but feel the pain of a generation that was thriving on opportunities until late last year; everything seemed fine. One of them that I have been deeply saddened by is the death of Sushant Singh Rajput – who too was an underdog.

He was an outsider thought to have little chance of winning the fight. I am no expert in psychology, but wisdom tells me that underdogs keep their dreams and multiple possibilities alive, because they have little to lose and everything to gain. Having grown up in a third world ‘striver’ society at the turn of economic liberalisation, I cannot help but draw from experiences from my working life, for life was mostly about work - and the narratives we have engaged with are those about brands we passionately worked for. Pepsi is one such brand.

While dealing with the news on Sushant’s death during the week gone by, my mind went back to sometime in 2007, when Pepsi released an international ad called ‘Endless Possibilities’. Back at the agency, most of us were sceptical about it working, especially in India. It was dismissed by marketers and consumers alike for being esoteric and a tad philosophical for a frivolous fizzy drink, but in it, I still find a cryptic story embedded for the hopeless - that life opens ups several insight windows for those who cannot imagine any possibility beyond the one they are staring at – when they hit a wall, really hard.

Sushant too, featured in one forgotten ad for Pepsi sometime in 2013. To me, he was a promising choice for the face of the brand. Having emerged from nowhere, with no one to rely on except the strength of his own talent, he was another one of the proverbial David in the industry of Goliaths. But he seemed to be making it big – despite the alleged obstacles thrown at him by the mighty, he had managed quite a few A-list opportunities if one looks at his filmography. If only he had viewed that ‘Endless Possibilities’ ad and drawn some inspiration from it.

Mainstream Bollywood is being accused of him meeting this untimely fate. I find that unreasonable – there are so many outliers who have been deprived of chances to make it big; but they are around – and thriving in crisis. For them the mainstream doesn’t matter, they are agile and adaptive – quick to shift to another context, another platform when they feel the mainstream isn’t worth their while – Manoj Bajpayee, Emraan Hashmi, Kay Kay Menon are a few of those who have reclaimed their rightful place as OTT platforms unfolded. Now a mainstream Bollywood icon, Shah Rukh Khan, has been Tweeting and Instagramming rather incessantly about his admiration for Sushant, coupled with shock and sorrow at the unfortunate turn of events. Indeed, it is an untimely, abrupt and tragic exit of an underdog.

But therein lies the double-bind. The brand has always been attracted to the outliers, but popularity dictates the decision. I can never comprehend Pepsi’s choice of signing up Salman Khan, who doesn’t have a single strand of underdog hair on his waxed chest. Then the whole debate shifts to whether the definition of David is to do with the factual reality of the person or the manufactured role one plays in movies, for a brand’s success ultimately is defined by the eyeballs it gathers which in turn influences the volumes. But Pepsi’s association with underdog platforms such as Tik Tok gives me hope that the heart is still in the right place.

(The author is executive director, TBWA India. The article was first published on the author’s personal blog on LinkedIn and has been reproduced with permission.)