The two soda giants have tried to outmaneuver each other with advertising for decades. Pepsi bills itself as hip and modern – the “Choice of a New Generation.” Coke, meanwhile, is portrayed as the ultimate refreshment, something that pairs well with any kind of food or with any good time. The goal is to snare consumer attention and keep soda drinkers focused on one beverage over the other. Come NBC’s Sunday’s broadcast of Super Bowl LII, however, the way the two companies talk about themselves may seem pretty similar.
You might call it the Madison Avenue equivalent of two of the most popular girls in high school showing up to the prom wearing the same dress.
In a 30-second ad set to air just before Pepsi’s annual halftime show, narrator Jimmy Fallon will take viewers through a parade of famous images related to some of Pepsi’s most iconic commercials. People in the ad will be spotted with Pepsi, Pepsi Zero Sugar and Diet Pepsi, and the audience will be told that Pepsi is “Celebrating Every Generation.” In the fourth quarter,Coke will run an inspiring 60-second commercial featuring beverages such as Coca Cola, Coke Zero Sugar and Coca-Cola Life. “There’s a different Coke for all of us,” says one of many narrating voices featured in the ad. “Enjoy Yours,” reads a tagline.
“The companies really want to make sure consumers understand that there are options, and the Super Bowl is a great place to make sure that message is not missed,” says Duane Stanford, executive editor of Beverage Digest, a trade publication that tracks the beverage industry.
Pepsi and Coke may sell what is essentially the same brown fizzy water, but they have spent millions of dollars and put in years of effort to make consumers think of them as the yin and yang of carbonated beverages. Coke rolls out memorable slogans like “Coke adds life” or “Have a Coke and a smile,” and uses iconic ads showing people singing about harmony on a hilltop. Pepsi works with celebrities including Britney Spears, Michael J. Fox and Michael Jackson while promoting its soda as something youthful and energizing.
Yet both companies face the same industry challenge. The sector’s three main players – Pepsi, Coke and Dr Pepper Snapple Group – pledged in 2014 to cut the beverage calories consumed per person in the U.S. by 20% by 2025, part of a broader effort to stave off the threat of local taxes on sugary beverages. As a result, they may feel an urgency to get consumers to consider low-calorie or no-calorie options like Pepsi Zero Sugar and Coca-Cola Life as good as, um, “the real thing,” another famous slogan for flagship Coke.
“It’s important that we talk about the breadth of our Coca-Cola portfolio,” says Brynn Bardacke, vice president of content and creative excellence at Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola generated the most sales in 2016 among carbonated sodas, according to Beverage Digest, with Pepsi running in second-place. Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi saw sales fall that year as consumers grow more wary of artificial sweeteners.
The soda giants are also trying to keep consumers interested in their best-known products even as they flock to other sorts of drinks, including waters, juices and teas. “Carbonated soft drink marketers are working to keep their brands relevant in an increasingly competitive beverage marketplace where consumers can be more fickle than ever,” says Gary Hemphill, managing director of research at Beverage Marketing Corp., an industry consultant. “It’s a huge challenge where consumers often are on the chase after the next hot product and are also striving to drink soft drinks that they perceive to be better for you.”
In past years, the Super Bowl served as turf for the companies’ long-running feud, rather than a hand-holding session. In 2008, Pepsi blocked Coke from buying ads in the first half of the game. And there’s more: In a famous 1995 Super Bowl spot, a Pepsi delivery driver tangles with his Coca-Cola counterpart after the rival decides not to give back a can of Pepsi after taking a taste. The song playing in the background? The Youngbloods’ 1967 hit “Get Together.”
Coca-Cola and Pepsi may have to do just that in the Super Bowl this year to maintain their future fizz.