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As the official soft drink of the NFL for 18 seasons, football has long been a part of the Pepsi playbook. But with the season in question, Todd Kaplan, vice-president of marketing for the cola brand is moving forward with a designed play – and he’s not afraid to call an audible.

If it were a normal year, Pepsi would be parlaying healthy summer sales directly into the euphoric start of the new NFL season—all the while leveraging its association with America’s favorite professional sports league.

No one needs to explain how a not normal this year has been. But despite it all, Pepsi-Cola sales have been strong. In fact, sales volume was up 5.9% for the first six months, per Beverage Digest. But not for the reasons that were mapped out in the early 2020 marketing plans.

After a decade’s worth of declines, PepsiCo has been investing heavily in marketing its namesake product. Eight quarters of growth have followed. It currently owns 9.1% of the US soft drink market. Comparatively, Coke owns 15.8%. Pepsi has been “trying to punch its way out, to get out of the share hole it had been in,” says Duane Stanford, editor, Beverage Digest. “They’ve been spending more. You’ll see them try and take some big swings. [Still], how do you fulfill your marketing objectives in this environment when you’re not even sure the football season will happen?”

For the time being, Pepsi is staying the course. Today, it unveils its new NFL campaign that clearly draws the distinction that Pepsi isn’t made for football, it’s “made for football watching.” The TV spots, created by Goodby Silverstein & Partners, are meant to be a fun take on home viewing experiences.

The campaign replaces last year's “Always Be Celebrating” NFL effort. That being said, the new spots are careful to show families celebrating, not groups of friends, says Kaplan. “There is appropriate social distancing.” In-store, social media activations and other tactics will support. The NFL spots are part of the overarching "That's what I like" campaign which marked the first time in two decades that the brand rolled out a US-based tagline.

 
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Agility is everything at the moment

The NFL is also moving along as planned. Yet, dozens of NFL players have opted out of playing and two of the biggest college football programs (the Big Ten and PAC-12) have postponed their seasons. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball has already had to endure a number of cancellations with the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins, in particular, being hit hard by the virus.

“The information [the NFL] is giving us is that a season is going to happen,” says Kaplan. That being said, “there’s definitely contingency plans. We are thinking through a bunch of different scenarios. Agility is a huge thing we’re reinforcing with our team and making sure no matter what comes our way, we can move quickly.”

The brand has already put a big emphasis on agility out of necessity. It scrapped its entire summer campaign because “it was fun, unapologetic summer stuff. In this current environment saying, ‘it’s the best summer ever’ when it literally is quite not, is not a good idea,” says Kaplan. In an earnings call last month, PepsiCo described its strategy as being more selective as to where and how PepsiCo will spend its marketing dollars.

Instead, it has been leaning into social. Stunts like Pepsi Cooler Claw (for grabbing beverages at a safe distance) and Pepsi Staycation Postcards (that mock the fact that we are all trapped at homes) have performed well, per the company. “We are going to be culture forward in everything we do. Pepsi starts and ends with the consumer,” says Kaplan. “We are monitoring social media, social listening and everything else to really understand…so that we can tailor plans that are most relevant.”

Other activations have included the MLB opening day toolkit with the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge and the NHL Pepsi Zero Sugar shutout program. New NFL-themed social media stunts are on the way.

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Some bubbly market trends

Pepsi-Cola has had some larger macro trends working in its favor. Kaplan identified three: the fact that consumers have gravitated towards trusted brands like Pepsi; that they have become more indulgent and accepting of higher calorie treats; and the fact that we are at home. The last trend, was meant to convey that consumers have more choices about what they want to eat or drink. But the fact that people aren’t going to restaurants is actually somewhat of a plus for the Pepsi brand specifically.

What had been a strength for Coca-Cola, the fact that it owns about a 70% share of the US fountain drinks business, has turned into a curse. “Coke has been hit much harder by restaurant shutdowns…and Pepsi had already been chipping away at share declines,” says Stanford. Coca-Cola, as a whole, reported the largest decline in quarterly revenue in the past 25 years during its earnings call on 21 July.

The lack of "on-premise" consumption is a double-edged sword for PepsiCo’s portfolio. Overall, organic revenue growth of its beverage business is down 7%, because, in addition to other factors, there are no stadiums, movie theaters and few restaurants open to serve its product.

Still, supermarkets and dollar stores have proven to be a bright spot. The downside of this is yet another unforeseen Coronavirus-specific challenge: namely, supply chain issues. Because people aren’t consuming fountain drinks in cups and are less likely to purchase 20 oz. plastic bottles popular at convenience stores, all of the major soft drink companies are dealing with shortages of cans. “What it means is that we just need really focused and thoughtful around the plans that we are bringing forward and that we are marketing programs on-air, on social and on all of those places that also happen to have products that people can find on shelves in stores. It’s important,” says Kaplan.

No matter what happens, Kaplan says Pepsi has activations at the ready for the remainder of the year whether there is football or not. “We have a ton of stuff. We have a whole Q4/Q3 plan of activity…given the pace at which culture is evolving, and how agile our team has been through it all, we are even shortening the windows of those things to go quicker and have fun with it.”

Beverage Digest’s Stanford characterizes it in similar, yet blunter way: “It’s a crazy time. Questions about the NFL? What’s going to happen with big in-store point-of-sale displays? Can shortages? It’s a whole new dynamic. It’s almost like marketing before in the NFL, the Super Bowl, what happened before, almost doesn’t matter. Throw out the playbook.”

While the NFL season is a question mark, one thing is for certain: Pepsi appears ready to spend on marketing in order to win.

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