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Ahead of the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards, Pepsi and Doja Cat have released a theatrical remake of the hit song You’re The One That I Want from Grease to promote the brand’s new soda shop-inspired flavors. The move adds to the brand’s long history of tapping into the cultural consciousness with the work of major musicians – and speaks to a growing trend of nostalgia-inspired products. 

Pepsi has today unveiled two new soda shop-inspired colas in a nostalgia-inducing campaign starring hip hop heavyweight Doja Cat. 

Dubbed Pepsi-Cola Soda Shop, the limited-edition colas come in two flavors: cream soda and black cherry. According to Todd Kaplan, Pepsi’s vice-president of marketing for colas, the idea for the new products was inspired by two trends shaping consumer behavior today: indulgence and nostalgia. “If you’re anything like me, indulgence is something you find yourself doing a lot more lately,” he says, chuckling. “[As far as] nostalgia, we’ve seen this return – whether it’s Cobra Kai card collecting or The Last Dance (a Netflix docuseries about Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls). In times of uncertainty, indulgence and nostalgia ... provide comfort. These two trends we think are here to stay for a bit.”

At the intersection of nostalgia and indulgence, says Kaplan, the team found the idea for soda shop-inspired drinks. “You think of Peach Pit in 90210 or The Max from Saved By The Bell,” he says. “The soda shop is a storied piece of American culture. We thought it was a fun way to bring this concept to life around Pepsi-Cola Soda Shop, which we’re calling a ‘modern take on a classic’.” 

Poodle skirts and greasers get a hip hop twist

To celebrate the launch of the new products, Pepsi will debut a new TV spot starring Doja Cat during the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) on Sunday – Doja Cat herself is hosting the ceremony. The film, a hip hop-influenced remake of You’re the One That I Want, the classic musical number from Grease, is theatrical and multidimensional – it feels much more like a music video than a TV ad. 

Set against the backdrop of a reimagined Rydell High alumni reunion, Doja Cat is leaning against an iridescent car with Mercedes-style gullwing doors with a clique of friends when she spots her handsome leather jacket-clad frontman across the parking lot – cracking open a can of Pepsi-Cola Soda Shop Cream Soda Cola. The parking lot transforms into the scene of a musical show-down. The bleachers become a stage for a high-energy choreographed dance. Finally, Doja makes her transition from good girl to greaser, where she meets the object of her desire in a soda shop, of course – now sporting an edgy haircut and full black leather fit. Considering that the 1971 musical theater production of Grease (which inspired the 1978 film) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the spot, created by VaynerMedia, is a timely homage. 

Kaplan says the brand felt the Need To Know rapper was the right woman for the job. “You can’t get a hotter artist than Doja Cat, who’s really in the pop culture zeitgeist,” he says. “She’s hosting the VMAs this weekend and she’s up for five awards. She’s a force on TikTok. She’s got such an unapologetic approach to her music and to culture that we thought she was a great fit for the brand. We thought she’d bring some really fun modern energy to this.”

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Pepsi has a long history of working with era-defining musicians. In 2001, the brand signed Britney Spears in a deal estimated to be worth between $7-8m at the time. Over the course of the next few years, the pop star featured in a handful of Pepsi ads – including a ‘through the decades’ montage-type spot featuring a soda shop scene, as well as a now-iconic three-minute commercial in which Spears, alongside fellow pop icons Beyoncé and Pink, recreate Queen’s We Will Rock You. And that wasn’t the only remake on record. Kaplan also points out a 2012 spot starring Elton John in which Melanie Amaro offers a modern rendition of Aretha Franklin’s Respect. The brand has remade classic hits as recently as last year, when Missy Elliott performed a reimagined Paint it Black by The Rolling Stones

Trading in cultural currency

Kaplan says that tapping into popular music and the broader tides of culture is central to Pepsi’s brand identity. “We are at our best when we’re connecting with culture and when we’re really finding ways to connect,” he says. “And that’s something I’ve been a big proponent of with the brand – everything from the Pepsi Super Bowl halftime show to every TikTok we do ... making sure we are connecting in an authentic way with our audience.”

Oftentimes these attempts are hits – as with the We Will Rock You pop star trio spot – but once or twice, Pepsi has missed the mark. Pepsi’s 2017 commercial picturing Kendall Jenner effectively resolving an imagined showdown between police and protestors – an obvious nod to the Black Lives Matter protests engulfing the nation – generated widespread backlash for being ‘tone deaf’. After initially defending the work, the brand pulled the ad.

Still, the brand remains committed to staying on the pulse of culture. Just this week, Pepsi announced a new apparel line in collaboration with Harlem-based designer Dapper Dan. The collection aims to fuse classic football apparel with luxury street style – just in time for the upcoming NFL season as well as New York Fashion Week. 

Part of this mission to connect with audiences through the cultural currency du jour has been what Kaplan calls “culture drop-type concepts”. He’s referring to unique or limited-edition product offerings – with corresponding marketing initiatives – that Pepsi develops in response to broader cultural trends and demands. Last year, the brand released a special apple pie-inspired cola. It was followed this spring by a limited-edition Peeps-flavored Pepsi that hit shelves just ahead of Easter. Perhaps inspired by the growing buzz around hard seltzers, Pepsi made its mango-flavored cola a permanent fixture in its product line-up in March.

As far as what’s next for the brand, Kaplan hints that big product news could be on the horizon. “We’ve been very busy on the innovation side,” he says. “I can’t share everything, but I will say, you wouldn’t be surprised if next year we had some really exciting news to share.”

Pepsi’s take on You’re The One That I Want debuts this Sunday at the VMAs. Pepsi Cola Soda Shop flavors will be available nationwide in both standard cans and 20-ounce bottles starting September 20. 

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