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Fresh Battle Grounds

Ambush marketing and guerrilla assaults mark the Coke-Pepsi cola war over the World Cup

Fresh Battle Grounds
All this for coloured sugared water? Well, yes, but the amused bystander to the ongoing Coca Cola-Pepsi cricket com-bat should also remember that the stakes in the cola wars have rarely been higher than they are for the Wills World Cup. Coupled with the subcontinent's mystical passion for cricket—especially among the young (read soft drink consumers)—is the estimate that around two billion people across the planet will be avidly following cricket's greatest event. They are a gigantic market waiting to be persuaded to take a glug.

When Coke outbid Pepsi to be the official soft drink of the Wills World Cup, the dimmest wit would have known that Pepsi, a major cricket sponsor worldwide, wouldn't just bow out of the ring as a graceful loser. Its response has been a classic case of "ambush marketing". Consider its guerrilla assaults—a cheeky mix of ingenuity and disdain—that have already taken place and some that are on the cards:

  • Pepsi has unleashed a deluge of print, television and outdoor advertisements, announcing that its drink has 'nothing official about it'. The advertisements have a galaxy of cricket stars endorsing the brand: Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammed Azharuddin and Vinod Kambli from India, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop from the West Indies, English all-rounder Dominic Cork and umpire Dickie Bird. And overlook the fact that these worthies are all going to be there in their official capacity at the World Cup.

  • At select fountain outlets all over India—Pepsi has 4,000 such outlets, including 800 in Delhi, its strongest market—paper cups with the 'nothing official' slogan will be dispensed. The cups will have photographs of cricket stars or 'role models' for the young, as Pepsi likes to call them.

  • Pepsi is distributing 200 free tickets as well as T-shirts and caps to winners of a contest it has run with Doordarshan. These enthusiasts will also be armed with placards applauding boundaries and over-boundaries. When a batsman cracks a four or six, Pepsi loyalists will do a jig, thus attracting the attention of the camera crews to them, making the red-blue-and-white logo on the shirts and caps visible to viewers.

  • While inside the stadia, the flanneled gladiators battle it out for the Cup, and the running boards and drinks trolleys are bedecked with Coke ads, outside the grounds, Pepsi will sponsor kite-flying competitions and send up helium-filled balloons bearing the company's logo. Pepsi officials, however, deny that they have such plans.

And ambush marketing? Heaven forbid. "Our advertisements are all in a spirit of fun and games—an image that the Pepsi brand propagates, with no malice intended to anyone," says a Pepsi spokesperson. The slogan, 'nothing official about it', he claims was chosen after a survey revealed that 'offi-cial' was among "the three words (the other two being 'discipline' and 'corruption') most disliked by people of 15-25 years, who constitute our core consumers".

 The advertisements have had an impact on consumers, claim Pepsi officials. On a scale of one to 10, the advertisements were rated between nine and 10 in a survey, they say. Of course the advertisements have had an impact, says Coca-Cola India spokesperson Jimmy Mogal. But, he says, that impact has been all positive for Coke! 

Huh? Well, according to Mogal, until Pepsi went to town with their slogan, "a lot of consumers were unaware that Coke was the official drink for the Cup. This was revealed in preliminary focus group discussions with consumers. They've spent money on our behalf and created the awareness. I beseech them to spend more and let more people know." And he sounds most serious when he says: "Thank you Pepsi for doing our job. It'll help the sport."

Bewildered, we talk to senior advertising people. "It's a silly campaign," sneers Sanjay Mathur, creative director, Lintas. "How can Pepsi flaunt that slogan when the company is a sponsor for Ranji Trophy matches, the Asia Cup and other sporting events?" Mathur also doubts that the campaign has had an impact: "There are better and more creative ways of fighting competitors. You should draw attention to your product and get noticed by attracting rather than attacking for the sake of attacking." According to him, Pepsi's advertisement binge is "very reactive and not particularly creative".

Shivjeet Kullar, creative director with another leading advertising agency, also feels that Pepsi's campaign is low on creativity. Nevertheless, the campaign, he feels, succeeds because "its strategy is very sound". "Pepsi has been very smart and very clever in trying to hijack the property (official drink status) of Coke," he says.

Kullar agrees with the Pepsi line that there is nothing malicious or unethical about the campaign. "In India we are not used to ad wars, though they are quite common abroad," he says. The campaign fits the Pepsi brand image—one of cheekiness and unpretentiousness. The brand has thrived worldwide on guerrilla warfare and on advertisements based on the outrageous, he points out. The Coke profile, on the other hand, projects enduring values, catering to the slightly older age group, compared to Pepsi's target group of teenagers and youth.

Coca-Cola is not retaliating, which is quite customary with the company, says Kullar. Affirms Mogal: "As the leader, we'rein the driving seat and we don't look in the rear-view mirror to see who's doing what."

"Why should we hit out at Pepsi?" he asks. "Pepsi's campaign is a clear case of sour grapes at losing out in the race for official sponsorship. Why should we take their campaign into account? A small campaign won't disturb our status as the offi-cial drink." Indeed, Coca-Cola's ad spend is far higher than that of Pepsi. Between November 26 and the first week of March, Coca-Cola is believed to be setting aside Rs 40 crore on advertising through Opera-tion Trigger, while Pepsi may just be blowing up the Rs 9.1 crore that they had bid for the official drink claim.

Operation Trigger—a multimedia campaign to spark off interest about the World Cup has been on since November-end—as a run-up to Coca-Cola's participation in the event. It included a series of colour advertisements in 41 magazines and newspapers across 32 cities and in nine languages. Outdoor promotion was done by hoardings and giant-sized visuals in 23 cities. Radio advertising covers five cities, with 27 spots alone on the first day of Operation Trigger. On any given day, channel surfers will find an incredible 42 Coke spots.

However, a dipstick survey among Outlook staffers—which, we admit, is not a representative sample—showed that they recall the Pepsi advertisements far more clearly than the Coke advertisements, principally because Pepsi advertisements show cricket stars, while Coke advertisements are sophisticated and low-key animation jobs. Hard sell versus soft sell. Which is the traditional nature of the Coke-Pepsi conflagrations. However, avers Mogal, Coke's campaign has caught people's fancy: "We put out an advertisement for a little booklet associated with the Cup in newspapers, and in six days, we had 40 lakh applicants. The post office had to ask us not to insert more ads." But the postal department's woes will be the last thing on the mind of the cola warriors as the bout goes into the final round.

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