The cola war, still bitter, has found new weapons in India. The evidence is on your nearest store shelf.
Does your dil maange more, or would you prefer a little thanda, instead? Does one need to say more about the decade and a half of rivalry between Coca-Cola and Pepsi in India? The war between the world’s biggest carbonate soft drinks makers has been fought as bitterly in India as in the rest of the world. There is no let-up, as the two companies live to get under each other’s skin, but they are getting new weaponry. More precisely, new packaging.
Just walk up to your nearest store, you will realise that buying a sip of your pick has some really radical options. You will have to try a little harder to find the ubiquitous 300ml glass bottle priced at the round Rs 10. Instead, you have a choice between a 250ml “Mycan” on the blue side and an equally radical looking 350ml “Xpress” PET bottle on the red side.
Both are priced at Rs 15. Yes, for the first time in India, the two companies — always fearful of losing an inch in the market — are offering two completely different options for the consumer at the same price point. And this is just the start.
“We have moved from penetrating the market to segmentation,” says Venkatesh Kini, vice-president, marketing, Coca-Cola India. In the same vein, PepsiCo India executive-director Punita Lal says: “We are into category creation.”
The story so far
It pays to rewind a little bit to the history of these two companies in India. Making their re-entry during the nascent years of the liberalisation — Pepsi in 1986 and Coca-Cola in 1990 — the two international giants found they weren’t going to dictate terms right away.
The first challenge was overcoming the local industry that prospered, principally in the form of the Parle brothers, Ramesh and Prakash Chauhan. Their marquee, ThumsUp, immediately upped the ante and forced a churn by increasing the standard serve size from 250ml to 300ml. The grapple ended when Coca-Cola bought ThumsUp for $60 million in a deal that still baffles many watchers, who say that Chauhan sold cheap.
While Coca-Cola wondered how to use ThumsUp, Pepsi, using the lead it had, thanks to entering India a little earlier, forged ahead with its instantly popular “Yehi Hai Right Choice, Baby” campaign, which featured a host of faces including the then baby-faced Sachin Tendulkar. But eventually the steam ran out, with creatives drying up in uniqueness. Though Pepsi’s time lead allowed it to gain 26 per cent of the market by the time Coca-Cola started operations in 1993, as the two fought to remain the same on pricing, packaging sizes and dovetailing even ad campaigns, the gap narrowed pretty soon. An example of the keen contest was the 200ml bottle, whose prices were slashed to Rs 5 simply to gain market brownie points, irrespective of the financial unviability.
These methods did precious little in the actual penetration of colas in India. Though the soft drink industry is today said to be valued at Rs 6,000 crore a year, with consumption of 550 million unit cases (one unit case is twenty four bottles of eight ounces each), the per capita consumption of an Indian is a pitiful 15 litres.
This is the reason why while “Thanda Matlab...” is toasted as a milestone for Coca-Cola, the joke in the industry is that it did more for Prasoon Joshi, who created the commercial.
The last one year has seen a remarkable change in the packaging, pricing, marketing and advertising strategies. Analysing packaging and pricing first, both companies have their own terminology to describe their efforts. Coca-Cola calls it Occasion Brand Pack Price Channel, while Pepsi says it is Pack Price Optimisation.
Both say they came about due to their continuous efforts to sample consumer tastes. Though both surveys seem to have said the same thing — get the right pack to the right consumer — this is how the approaches to implement them have diverged.
To begin with, both had a level playing field, with packs having similar quantities of cola and matched on price — Rs 8 for a 200ml glass bottle, Rs 10 for a 300ml glass bottle, Rs 20 for a 600ml PET bottle, Rs 25 for a 330ml can, and Rs 50 for a 2 litre PET bottle.
Taking the Coca-Cola story first, it decided to introduce two completely new pack sizes into the fray. It chose to go with the PET format in the carbonated beverages to launch a 350ml Xpress pack priced at Rs 15, and a 1.25 litre Fridge pack at Rs 35. Meanwhile, it decided to go with a new 250ml PET pack again priced at Rs 15 for its fruit offerings — Maaza and Minute Maid.
“We have broadened the pack range. We try to hit the sweet spot — in terms of pricing. We are trying to maximise consumer utility so that they get the right value,” says Kini. He claims that the Xpress pack is just right for anyone who wants to have a drink on the go and cannot hang around to finish the 300ml glass bottle, the 1.25 litre pack is for small gatherings and designed to fit into the racks of small fridges. They decided to leave the 330ml can untouched as it was an “image leading pack”.
Pepsi meanwhile decided to adopt a completely tangential approach by reviving the can, which, as said above, had been reduced to token value in India. In a significant effort, it designed a new can format for India, which is not used as a standard internationally for carbonated beverages. Thus was born the slim 250ml Mycan, priced at Rs 15.
“We went with it because of the ‘pop’ sound of opening it. The packaging medium allows us to be more affordable and, at Rs 15, is still within the Rs 10 to Rs 20 price point. It is branded to convey that it is cool,” says Lal. She accepts that the can is not re-saleable and offers 100ml less than its rival. In another departure, the 1.25 litre pack was tried but abandoned because it was felt to be not “worth the effort”.
The effort seems to be toward creating a new magic price point. Currently, it is Rs 10, but industry watchers say that it is going the way of the Rs 5 price point for the 200ml bottle, as input costs escalate and it is impossible to infinitely make the system efficient.
The main cost component of a returnable glass bottle is that it is fundamentally tied to having a bottling facility near its consuming base, and is thus prone to escalating costs of everything, from labour to fuel prices. The logistics chain is time-consuming, and you need vast storage for empty bottles in case of a fall in demand.
Kini and Lal insist that the 300ml returnable glass bottle is here to stay as it is a “sustainable proposition”. But Lal reveals that its share has sunk from 65 per cent of sales to 50 per cent. Kini says the new packs will find their way more into urban centres, with the glass bottle being preferred in cases where consumption is “not on the go”.
Harish Bijoor, independent brand and business strategist, says it was inevitable. “They have realised the need to segment markets. It was inevitable because in an eyeball-to-eyeball competition, you hardly gain 0.5 per cent and lose it as easily. But the risks are big in this game as you don’t want to lose even 0.1 per cent,” he says.
Anand Halve, co-founder, Chlorophyll, another brand consultancy, prefers to take a cynical approach. “They are taking an individual risk because not taking risks is not working either,” he says.
Meanwhile on the marketing and advertising front, Pepsi and Coke have decided to increase below-the-line advertising spends, after years of spending big on television. Though insisting that television spends are not falling — around 80 per cent of the budget still goes there — Coke says that in the last two to three years there is a lot more happening in emerging media.
“We are investing more in in-store media and point-of-sale merchandising. We want to make a difference in presenting to consumers,” says Kini, adding that their latest experiments are Red Zones for youth at shopping malls. Lal says Pepsi is working with its “key customers”, which is organised food retail, such as, Pizza Hut and KFC.
Coke seems to have done away with having a cricket brand ambassador. Its current line-up is entirely of actors: Aamir Khan and Hrithik Roshan for Coke, Mahesh Babu and Akshay Kumar for Thums up, and Genelia D’Souza for Fanta. “Cricket is a medium of communication. We leverage it to the hilt,” says Kini.
Pepsi has a significant presence in cricket and Bollywood. Pepsi is endorsed by Ranbir Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, M S Dhoni, Shah Rukh Khan, S Sreesanth and Robin Uthappa; Pepsi Diet by John Abraham, Slice by Katrina Kaif, 7Up by Allu Arjun, and Mirinda by Asin.
“Cricket is the lowest common denominator and no can abandon it entirely,” says Bijoor, adding that Coke is possibly holding its cards close to its chest because the costs are high right now and there may be a big salvo when a personality becomes available.
Halve says below-the-line spends are a little too early. “Everyone is getting carried away. Nothing comes close to Bollywood and cricket in India in terms of nationwide popularity. There is nothing to drive the masses like television.”
But Bijoor differs by pointing out that coffee has morphed into being “sexy”, and can involve a conversation, while colas are a stand-up drink.
© 2008 Business Standard