by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

Last week, Pepsi announced almost a 10% decrease in its third-quarter income, and warned that the year wouldn't be as bubbly as once thought. Coke delivered better results, crediting its sales overseas (and favorable currency exchange rates). Both firms aren't convincingly happy about the outlook for 2009.

Are these facts better understood in the context of brand image and awareness, or via the real-life mechanics of drinking soda pop?

A brand analysis perspective yields strategies of line extensions and tinkering with the look-and-feel of logos and advertising. This seems to be what both companies will continue to rely upon: 

  • Coke has been winning the war so far with its ownership of non-bubbly brands, so it can sell things other than cola and make its numbers
  • Pepsi is expected to reveal a "hipper look" for its tri-colored globe, new packaging, and new ingredients

Industry wags think the brand approach makes complete sense, as one media expert said " we go into 2009 and Pepsi begins to roll stuff out, it’s going to have the upper hand."  

So both businesses have put their faith in the prospect of adding iterations of its core products -- coming soon...pineapple flavored zero-fat/calorie/carb de-caffeinated nanomolecular sweetener cola, with vitamins added -- while adding other products to store shelves, with the hope of extending them, too.

What about selling soda pop?

  • Is it a foregone conclusion that soda pop is a dying category? 
  • Is the best (or only) strategy to create various iterations of those products, in hopes that they can capture the taste buds of ever-smaller subsets of consumers?
  • Are the brand names so compelling powerful (and lasting) that people will someday see them applied to other products altogether? Coca-Cola brand mouthwash? Pepsi cough syrup?

I don't think human beings are born with a predisposition to drinking soda pop; we have to learn it, or get inspired to add it to various experiences in our lives. Like any consumption product, we eventually become somewhat reliant upon it, and drink more out of routine or habit than from conscious choice.

Stock analysts and industry wags should be worried that neither company has announced any awareness of the need -- let alone intention or concrete plan -- to find new, more meaningful and compelling ways to make drinking soda pop relevant to consumers' lives again.

Use or need cases are used in technology development to identify the places and times  people might require a software product or widget. That approach to the mechanics of consumption is based on actual experience, not imagined desires or emotional associations, so the strategy doesn't start with brand...but certainly impacts it. 

Applied to the cola business, it would mean brainstorming the moments people could actually want (or benefit from) one or more of the attributes that Pepsi or Coke colas offer, then working backwards from those moments to create the brand marketing to promote them. 

Cola in the morning as an alternative to coffee and tea (I know Coke ran a single ad with this premise, and I think it was very smart)? As an afternoon pick-me-up? Something in the evening, when youngsters are out on the town? 

Again, maybe I’m a dim bulb on this one, but I find it stunning that nobody is asking these businesses why they aren’t focusing on making cola relevant again. It’s certainly harder work than adding nonsense product extensions and redesigning logos, but it would yield business strategy that’s more real, more measurable, and more sustainable.

Maybe they've already tried, and come up with nothing?

But talking about brands without the cola soda pop attached just verges on irrational effervescence.

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