Pepsi Tries Throwback Branding — with a Premium Price

Pepsi Natural

Marketers are dead certain that consumers always want something fresh and new; meanwhile, consumers often seem to hate big changes—as Pepsi's and Tropicana's disastrous rebrandings just proved. But for some reason, everyone loves throwback branding.

Several brands will be trying the strategy out in the upcoming weeks: General Mills is marketing "vintage" cereal boxes through March 21st at Target; Pepsi and Mountain Dew will be releasing throwback brands in April, at a significant price premium. Details on the later two just emerged: Both will harken to old-time soda-pop roots, with sugar-cane sweetners rather than high-fructose corn syrup; both will have glass bottles and a design that evokes the 1960's and 1970's. The blog Keacher already has a taste test up of a third product, Pepsi Natural:

Time for a sip.  While the regular version had a biting, acidic feel, the natural felt smoother and more mellow.  The regular mouthfeel was inferior, being somewhat astringent.  There was a grittiness on my tounge and teeth with the regular version that seemed absent with the other.  Overall, the taste profile was very similar.  I think that the natural version had hints of cognac, but even in the non-blind test the two drinks were difficult to distinguish.  Later, a couple of my friends also used the adjective "smoother" when describing Pepsi Natural versus regular Pepsi.

It's an interesting move. In a former life as a management consultant with beverage-industry clients, I worked on a conundrum that has tortured the industry: Unlike nearly every other class of consumer good, soda has never been able to create a high-margin, premium product. Many marketers still rue the cola wars of the 1980s, which eventually led to diet sodas being priced just like regular sodas, even though the demographics are much richer.

Throwback branding might just work in finally creating that long sought-after premium, for a number of subtle reasons. As Ad Week points out, retro-branding is an easy way to tap sentimental connections—which brands themselves have spent billions of dollars in creating, only to discard them once the new campaign approaches. Moreover, Pepsi, in linking retro with it's "natural" roots, finally has a believable story connecting it with the organics movement at large. And organics of course, are the biggest story in food and beverage of the last twenty years: A so-called organic product can easily sell for twice as much, even though the health benefits and lessened environmental impact are dubious. Very clever. 

[Tip via Kottke]


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  • Steven Heicher

    Audrae Erickson: I hate to point this out, but your site, using my World of Trust ranking add-on, warned me about the website that you directed us to, which means it has a poor enough reputation that it amounts to propaganda supported by your trade. It would be like me believing that smoking is OK for you when told as such by a tobacco grower or processor organization.

    For the record, I'd say the same to a representative of the sugar growers organization.

  • Cliff Kuang

    Hey guys---Thanks for starting up a feisty debate on HFCS. While that wasn't the original subject of the post, I do want to point out a couple of things: Contrary to what Audrae is arguing (on behalf of the corn industry), the debate isn't the HFCS is inherently any worse than any other sweetener. Rather, the point is that HFCS is cheaper than sugar, thanks in part to the enormous subsidies that the government awards to the corn industry. This in turn was a product of a push in the 1970s to make calories—whatever their source be—to be extremely cheap to American consumers. Thus, the problem with HFCS isn't that its inherently bad—of course it's relatively benign in moderation. Almost anything is. Rather, the problem with HFCS is a much larger one, wherein our agricultural policy subsidizes cheap, empty calories rather than nutritious ones (such as fresh fruits and vegetables). HFCS is merely the symptom of a much bigger problem. The corn industry has of course been fighting mightily to scrub the image of HFCS in ubiquitous commercials, but these are, in my opinion, not the real the issue at hand. Certainly we can't fault the corn industry for keeping its own interests at heart, but given the rates of obesity in the U.S., we can say that our public policy—the one that has heavily subsidized the corn industry—is broken. It's a relic of 1970s science and politics. That's a tragedy.

  • YO Yo

    FU Audrae.
    Nice of you to go on here and spread your crock about HCFS. The way to hide to the truth is to spout mumbo-jumbo Journals which are pretty worthless at face value. How many times has the Journal had to about face?

    The truth: HCFS = 55% fructose + 45 glucose. These are primitve molecules. The kind a hummingbird would suck to keep aloft.

    Guess what, we don't fly.

    Sugar = 100% sucrose, a disaccharide, which is glucose and fructose "glued" together weakly.

    This is why you and your ugly child are fat; the body release an enzyme to break down sugar, and monitors such a release.
    When you suck soda, you drink HCFS without consequence. Basically water + raw calories. You could drink this all day, and the soda companies know it.

    You have a sugar-based soda (you CAN tell the taste difference) and are never satisfied.
    GO AHEAD and supersize our a$$es Audae.

  • Robert Stinnett

    Time to get out the plaid shorts and Adidas sneaks. Oh, wait, those are already back in style!

    I think this is an excellent way to promote the brand in this rough economy. I mean who amongst us doesn't remember the old Pepsi logo and getting soda in a glass bottle? I drink soda very infrequently (maybe once a week, and then diet) but it's good to see them going back to sugar into of high fructose syrup. That syrup stuff has been the center of controversy for years.

  • Audrae Erickson

    High fructose corn syrup may have a complicated-sounding name, but it's actually a simple sweetener, made from corn, that is nutritionally the same as sugar.

    The American Medical Association in June 2008 helped put to rest misunderstandings about this sweetener and obesity, stating that “high fructose syrup does not appear to contribute to obesity more than other caloric sweeteners.”

    Even former critics of high fructose corn syrup dispel long-held myths and distance themselves from earlier speculation about the sweetener’s link to obesity as the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition releases its 2008 Vol. 88 supplement's comprehensive scientific review.

    Many confuse pure “fructose” with "high fructose corn syrup," a sweetener that never contains fructose alone, but always in combination with a roughly equivalent amount of a second sugar (glucose). Recent studies that have examined pure fructose - often at abnormally high levels - have been inappropriately applied to high fructose corn syrup and have caused significant consumer confusion.

    High fructose corn syrup is not sweeter than sugar; and high fructose corn syrup, sugar and honey all contain the same number of calories (four calories per gram).

    Like table sugar and honey, high fructose corn syrup contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives.

    Consumers can see the latest research and learn more about high fructose corn syrup at

    Audrae Erickson
    Corn Refiners Association