Back in the old days, before the Internet, energy drinks, and a healthy skepticism of high fructose corn syrup, the Pepsi Challenge was, essentially, a taste test. As the perennial No. 2 to Coke’s cola lead, Pepsi would stage tests to see which brand people would choose in a blind taste experiment. Was it scientific? No. Could footage be easily edited to make the results into just about anything any brand wanted? Sure. But when Mr. Kotter himself says it’s true (along with an everyday guy like, um, Joe Kielbasa), people in the ’80s believed it. And it became a pop culture sensation before Twitter could make pop culture sensations in seconds.
Now, 40 years after it first launched, Pepsi is launching a new global campaign to celebrate the milestone Pepsi Challenge anniversary. But don’t hold your breath for some new interpretation of the taste test, PepsiCo Global Beverages Group president Brad Jakeman says today’s consumers don’t need it. “As we came up to the 40th anniversary we wondered if millennials even knew what the Pepsi Challenge was,” says Jakeman. “And what we found was that they did. It’s shown up in movies and other pop culture references, but their impression of it wasn’t necessarily tied to the idea of one beverage tasting better than another. That freed us up to reinterpret it for a new generation and gave us the ability to create what we wanted it to be now.”
The new campaign, according to Jakeman, will be socially based and content-led through a combination of six celebrity brand ambassadors, social consumer challenges, and local interpretations of the campaign around the world. The brand will be working with Usher, Serena Williams, Colombia and Real Madrid soccer star James Rodriguez, Usain Bolt, designer Nicola Formichetti, and social media phenom Jerome Jarre throughout 2015, to announce a series of challenges from March to the end of the year, which PepsiCo Global Beverages Group chief marketing officer Kristin Patrick says are designed to push consumers to push themselves and dream big.
“The challenges will ask consumers to do things, submit things, it could be a piece of writing, a selfie, the range will be from challenging to things anyone can do,” says Patrick. “In the past we’ve been linked to sports and music. Consumers passions are evolving and the world of culture is increasingly connected–film and fashion are connected to music, all these entry points all work together. And if you look at celebrities today, while the do stand in a particular genre, they also have different points of interest across culture. So our challenges will be across technology, sports, music, and design.”
Also, every time consumers around the world use the hashtag #PepsiChallenge in their social media channels, the brand will make a donation to Liter of Light, an organization committed to bring light to people around the world.
But seriously, no taste test? “The question of superior tasting Pepsi was asked and answered 40 years ago,” says Jakeman. “Now it’s about how we take the spirit of that and make it relevant way beyond the taste of Pepsi and into the lifestyle of our consumers and the things that are important to them.”
There’s also the small matter of Coke and Pepsi colas not quite being the product and brand powerhouses they once were. Despite the parent companies exceeding investors’ expectations in 2014, thanks in large part to an increasingly diverse portfolio of food and beverage brands, consumer demand for the namesake product has been deteriorating for the last decade. Jakeman acknowledges that challenge and says it means the way they market Pepsi itself has to be beyond its physical form.
“Pepsi, as a brand, is much bigger than a cola and is considered a pop culture brand,” says Jakeman. “We have to innovate around the brand from a product perspective so that we’re meeting the changing consumer demands but in our marketing we’re moving beyond just the core Pepsi advertising and really advocating the trademark that encompasses all the brands while still retaining the Pepsi lifestyle promise.”