In-depth: Are cola ads losing their fizz?

Speaking to, various players from the adland expressed that the concept of 'cola-wars' has ceased to exist in the current time frame as it has summed up to a 'fossilised reference' or a 'myth'

Shreya Negi
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In-depth: Are cola ads losing their fizz?

In the good old days, cola brands from the house of The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo used to release campaigns in which they took a jab at each other. These campaign wars used to be highly competitive yet they were carried out in a sporting manner.

One such instance of the ‘ambush’ marketing strategies of the cola giants in the country was during the 1997 Cricket World Cup, wherein Coca-Cola had bagged the official sponsorship rights for the tournament and Pepsi had rolled out a campaign titled- ‘Nothing official about it’.

Pepsi took a dig at Coke in its ‘Nothing Official About It’ campaign-

In fact, the rivalry was so magnanimous that Coca-Cola took its revenge during the Pepsi Asia Cup of 1997 by bagging the TV sponsorship rights of the tournament, leaving the former stunned as it wasn’t able to sponsor it, despite having branded the tournament.

The concept of ‘Cola wars’ and how it ceased to exist? 

Soumitra Karnik

Walking down memory lane with some of the most iconic ad campaigns that gave birth to the ‘Cola Ad-Wars’ in the earlier days, Soumitra Karnik, an independent Creative Consultant shared the viewpoint that ‘​the original concept of cola wars has long been put to rest’ and remarked, “The category has chosen to remain on functionality for some reason and has lost a lot of its magic.”  

He also recalled that in the earlier times, consumers used to wait with bated breath and preferred a ringside view of the game of one-upmanship between these beverage brands, as a result of which some of the cola ads truly became iconic owing to the fact that there was a larger-than-life feel attached with them. 

“There was a compulsion to spend if the competitor released something. For example, if Coke released a new ad, Pepsi had to respond with a better, cleverer, smarter ad and to tackle Pepsi, they had to think of ways to outwit it. So, there was a chain reaction of spending really, and it was this kind of competition that ensured that the fizz never ran out of the category,” he said.

Moreover, he also pointed out that the landscape has changed drastically in the current time frame, and that, in his expectations, ​this year’s cola wars on ad mediums during the summer of 2023 would be ‘lukewarm’ because let-alone summers, cola brands face the heat year-round. 

“What may have sanitised the voice of the cola category to a large extent would be the fear of being immediately trolled and that too viciously on social media, despite one perceiving it to be good,” he opined.

Ashish Mishra

Similarly, Ashish Mishra, CEO, Interbrand-India and South Asia also opined that in his views, the Cola Wars are now more of a ‘fossilised reference’ and that it is a market which has slowly been running out of new ideas.

Additionally, he also shared that ahead of the summer of 2023, he does not expect big changes in the formulaic mix that the various brands have created as their status quo.

Vikas Mehta

As per Vikas Mehta, an independent Consultant, the Cola Wars is a myth because when one looks at India, there have not been many cola wars in the first place, and the only brand which has done something close to a ‘war’ is Pepsi, because it has a ‘rebel’ persona of being somebody who is always a selfish, extroverted, not bothered about the society or laws or rules and regulations, etc. and is living life on the edge.

The cola brands’ persona and ambassador game 

During the interaction with, Mehta emphasised that the differentiation between Coke and Pepsi, globally, has always been on their personalities as a brand and stated, “Unlike Pepsi, Coke has always been a family brand and it is similar to Pepsi in a way because it also has got ‘fun’ and ‘humour’ in it. But Coke is a bit more ‘mature’ and about being a part of the society rather than being not a part of the society and that’s why the brand ambassadors that these brands choose for themselves should fit their respective personalities.”

Supporting his viewpoint with the use case of the two Bollywood actors- Ranbir Kapoor and Ranveer Singh, who are the brand ambassadors of Coca-Cola and Pepsi respectively, he said, “Ranbir is a fun character who is a bit more mature, sophisticated and a family man whereas Ranveer comes as the ‘rebel’ one who is always doing something crazy and therefore, Ranbir is a viable fit for Coke and Ranveer for Pepsi because it is their personalities that gel very well with the brand persona of both.”

Coca-Cola’s ad showcasing Ranbir Kapoor as a tenant-

Pepsi’s ad featuring Ranveer Singh-

Furthermore, Mehta also shared with that he was taken aback when Thums Up resorted to Shahrukh Khan for its endorsement because the brand persona of the same is all about ‘masculinity’, being ‘macho’ and ‘daring’ physically and that’s not what SRK stands for.  

“Because Shahrukh is a pretty skilled marketer himself, I personally feel that it was he who had approached the brand ahead of the release of ‘Pathaan’ wherein he is seen ticking all the checkboxes- ‘macho’ and ‘daring’. Therefore, the best way for him to promote his film was to promote his personality and that is what he actually did in the Thums Up ad,” he opined.

SRK caught up in an action sequence in the Thums Up ad

In fact, Mehta also went on to share another example of a cola brand’s ad that didn’t strike the right chord. He said that the Coca-Cola ad featuring Tiger Shroff was a ‘disaster’ because that’s not a brand that’s going to sell anyway as it has a very small market and secondly, what has disappointed him is the fact that “Tiger does not share the persona that’s similar to Coke. Tiger is a more viable fit for a Pepsi or a Thums Up.”

Coke Zero’s ad featuring Tiger Shroff-

Similarly, Karnik also pointed out that it is a game of musical chairs that’s being played between the celebrity endorsers, which means, there seems to be no real differentiation left anymore in brand positionings. 

“Salman who stands for a macho image endorsed Thums Up for years, then dropped by the brand during his several controversies, then was picked up by Pepsi who stood for irreverence of the youth, at a time when Salman had aged. A total mashup,” he said.

He also went on to add that amidst all the brand endorser announcements that have happened lately, he personally feels that Ranveer Singh seems to be the only correct fit for Pepsi. 

“But I still say, the category isn’t experimenting as it used to. The OTT platform has been producing such precious gems and a lot of good actors have been discovered. And in case they are still not found to be more ‘mainstream’, someone should think about using the memorable characters they play,” he stated.

Moreover, Karnik also went on to point out that having witnessed how Pepsi found Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Aamir Khan in their very early days, there’s no reason why Mirzapur’s ‘Guddu’ and ‘Golu’ cannot make for great endorsers in a Thums Up campaign or why the ‘Panchayat’ villager cannot aspire to be the face of the relaunched Campa Cola, or the ‘Gullak’ family not bond over a two-litre home pack of Coca Cola.

Pepsi’s ‘Ye Hi Hai Right Choice’ ad campaign featuring Aishwarya Rai and Aamir Khan-

“Why not from the Indian women’s cricket team? They have been filling the stadiums too and have fantastic energy. In fact, Jemima’s personality is infectious and these women cricketers are extremely loved and memorable characters. It is time for them to shine on! Such a paradigm shift in castings used to be expected from the cola category earlier. Why not now?” he added.

Additionally, Interbrand’s Mishra also emphasised that celebrities need to be a part of the idea and follow the brand rather than the other way around. Sharing an example, he said, “With the bizarre interchangeability on show between the celebs employed by the soft drink majors, we have a situation where the brands are merely interested in salience and supply game. This works well if the brand idea is strong and some of the brands like Thums Up demonstrate this well.”

State of ad spending and focus on media vehicles for cola as a category in Summers’ 2023

Upon being questioned as to what his views is going to be the state of ad spends by the cola giants in India during the summer season of 2023, Karnik replied that with uncertain market conditions, high inflation, layoffs happening in literally every industry, and people becoming more health-conscious, the spending on colas may not see as much of a spike as expected.

“Having said that, pushed against the wall the cola category will feel the pressing need to think out of the box to reinvent itself and the brands who are more dynamic than others will lead the way,” he opined.

Moreover, he also emphasised that it would be the digital and mobile platforms that will continue to usurp the spending from their traditional counterparts in his views, and said, “Once again, it is not the platforms but how cleverly these media are used by the brands is what will matter.”

In his views, the earlier approach of North-East-West-South for ad campaigns may be an easier way to cut the market in terms of geographies but spending may have to be divided as per the behaviour patterns, personas and personalisation of message to make the marketing campaigns more relevant and engaging now. 

“Data-driven insights will create sharper and multiple customer personas and today, each customer persona is a geographical territory in itself. The movie industry is a great example to follow- from single-screen experience to multi-screen experience to now customised content offering on OTT, Gully Boy can be found inspiring by Bharat and entertaining by India, and content from the South can find a huge market in the other parts of India too,” he opined.

As per Interbrand’s Mishra, before the brands rush to churn out interchangeable celeb-based TVCs, they need to have a deeper introspection in terms of what new human truths or signs they want to be based on and answer the questions of ‘are these truths generationally typified or are they universal’, ‘what differences in experiences can they create’ or ‘what could be the new categories and spaces wherein they can extend their unique point of view to’.

In fact, the ‘roll out regionalisation’, to him seems to be a fallout of the celeb-based formulaic approach because it's tough to find a universal appeal celeb and there is a need to pick a set to cover the bases.

 “As regards addressing diversity, it will be useful to find the new truths that are powerful and universal. Looking at what doesn’t change rather than the local divides,” he added.

During the course of his interaction, Mehta also clarified that TV is not the medium for targeting youngsters because even when cricket matches come on television, the youngsters prefer to watch it on OTT platforms and the remaining content on YouTube.

Therefore, in his views, the right medium for cola ads is not going to be TV, but it will still form a part of the media mix and what falls well in line with the same is the big-ticket event - IPL, which has a massive reach, but it would only be IPL and nothing beyond that on TV.

In addition to this, he also stated that in his belief, both The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo would be banking big on digital to get consumers to experience their products as well. “For example, with Ranveer coming on board, they might do some events with him at the IPL and Coke might do the same with Ranbir and Shahrukh is definitely not going to let go of this opportunity because he also has his own IPL team- Kolkata Knight Riders, therefore, Thums Up might do something with them,” he added.

Moreover, other brands like Slice, 7UP, Limca, Maaza, etc. which fall under the portfolio of the two- The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, as per Mehta, will also be adequately marketed but at the end of the day, everything is driven by cola, therefore the spending would be marginal on these soft-drinks juxtaposed to the colas and would mainly be spending on TV, however, both the cola giants will be going all out in their overall marketing this year owing to the long summers as this is the first clear opportunity for them to fuel sales and scale profits in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“The case is not going to be like one of their non-cola brands would surpass the spending on advertisements for the cola category and once the IPL gets over, the entire focus will go on to Digital because there won’t be not too many TV or Cinema properties to look at post the tournament and target the youngsters,” he added.

Limca’s new ad featuring Kota Factory’s Jeetu Bhaiya-

Coca Cola Pepsi advertising PepsiCo India cola war