Jan 6, 2009

Mktg - Pepsi's Ode to Joy for '09

Barbara Lippert, Adweek

Spelling out a warm welcome with words like "yo," "aloha," "howdy" and "konnichiwa" (that last one's Japanese), the Pepsi spot "Word Play" ushered in 2009 with a big, graphic dose of optimism (or "optimismmm," as the spot preferred to spell it).

The New Year is certainly a good time for positivity. But given that 2008 was, in many ways, a uniquely lousy year, this first Pepsi work from TBWA\Chiat\Day might seem a tad disconnected.

Then again, it's aimed at millennials, those born between 1980 and 1990, who are an innately optimistic bunch, at least according to Pepsi research. (This insight comes from a study known as the "Pepsi Optimism Project," or "POP." Which is to say, soda. And the wild colors here are very pop art.) But even if research hadn't found a single optimist out there, the agency has to act as if things will get better. Otherwise, what's there to say? "It's 2009, and your home is in foreclosure, but it's Pepsi time!"?

The spot was due to air during MTV's New Year's Eve coverage and is posted at RefreshEverything.com (a site created by R/GA), where effervescent, Pepsi-minded users can upload photos and post their "refresh" messages to boards in Times Square. Words from the commercial were set to appear on eight different boards, and at four minutes before midnight, Pepsi planned to release 1,000 giant logo'd balloons (each three feet in diameter) for the revelers to revel in.

For any brand, especially one that's bubbly, having a presence in Times Square on New Year's Eve is cool. And in its graphic simplicity, the spot is attention getting, and establishes a different tone from the big celebrity-filled production numbers from BBDO, Pepsi's previous agency. For starters, this one cost perhaps $99 to produce, not including the price of a Mac.

At the same time, the happy-greeting-card vibe is derivative and watered down, like a great idea that somehow got stepped on before being executed. I like the music, by indie rockers the Apples in Stereo; it's a catchy tune with upbeat lyrics like "And the world, is made of energy/And the world is electricity." But it, too, sounds like watered-down Beatles.

To be fair, this New Year's effort is a palate cleanser, or placeholder, for the real ad campaign to come. Still, given TBWA's genius in promoting Apple, and Pepsi's prominence as a brand, I find it a disappointing opener. The graphics represent an artificial sense of hope that's detached from any meaning.

It's all about the "O." In each word, that letter is replaced with the new red, white and blue smiling Pepsi globe logo, designed by Arnell. For me, that's where the trouble starts.

The new Pepsi mark is very reminiscent of the Barack Obama logo, the graphic symbol that was so swooned over by design mavens and average Joes alike. That's because the Obama logo was rooted in meaning: Obviously, the "O" is for Obama, the colors represent the American flag, and the stripes could be the plains or American farmland, or a bridge to the future. There's a grounded, hopeful sense of change in the abstract imagery, which matched Obama's platform perfectly, while the rest of the presidential contenders' logos merely spelled out their names.

The Pepsi logo also is similar to the Korean Air logo. The airline, on its Web site, says the yin-and-yang design is intended "to express a sense of dynamic power." I'm sure the Pepsi designers were going for "dynamic" feeling as well. But the red, white and blue globe, smiling or not, just seems hard and corporate. It fails to incorporate any sense of the rich visual legacy of the Pepsi brand. (And with the redesign of its can, Pepsi joins the parade of companies using all-lowercase lettering, suggestive of the 1960s and '70s.)

Whether the country is feeling optimistic or not at the moment, the big question here is: What is the spot really communicating? And that's exactly the problem these days in selling any soda. That this ad comes off as Apple lite reminds me of the famous marketing story from the mid-'80s, when Steve Jobs recruited John Sculley from Pepsi to head Apple. He convinced Sculley to take the job by asking him, "Do you want to sell sugared water all your life, or do you want to change the world?"

Neither description is really accurate, and Sculley's move turned out to be a disaster; he should have stayed with the sugared water.

The point is, millennials out looking for a job these days would probably sooner stop for a Red Bull than a Pepsi. And no amount of playing the happy card is going to change that.

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