The cola wars had become a part of global folklore - something all of us took for granted. However, for the companies involved, it was a matter of 'fight or succumb.' Both print and electronic media served as battlefields, with the most bitter of the cola wars often seen in form of the comparative advertisements.
In the early 1970s, the US soft-drinks market was on the verge of maturity, and as the major players, Coke and Pepsi offered products that 'looked the same and tasted the same,' substantial market share growth seemed unlikely. However, Coke and Pepsi kept rejuvenating the market through product modifications and pricing/promotion/distribution tactics. As the competition was intense, the companies had to frequently implement strategic changes in order to gain competitive advantage. The only way to do this, apart from introducing cosmetic product innovations, was to fight it out in the marketplace. This modus operandi was followed in the Indian markets as well with Coke and Pepsi resorting to more innovative tactics to generate consumer interest.
In essence, the companies were trying to increase the whole market pie, as the market-shares war seemed to get nowhere. This was because both the companies came out with contradictory market share figures as per surveys conducted by their respective agencies - ORG (Coke) and IMRB (Pepsi). For instance, in August 2000, Pepsi claimed to have increased its market share for the first five months of calendar year 2000 to 49% from 47.3%, while Coke claimed to have increased its share in the market to 57%, in the same period, from 55%.
Media reports claimed that the rivalry between Coke and Pepsi had ceased to generate sustained public interest, as it used to in the initial years of the cola brawls worldwide. They added that it was all just a lot of noise to hardsell a product that had no inherent merit.
Coke had entered the Indian soft drinks market way back in the 1970s. The company was the market leader till 1977, when it had to exit the country following policy changes regarding MNCs operating in India. Over the next few years, a host of local brands emerged such as Campa Cola, Thumps Up, Gold Spot and Limca etc. However, with the entry of Pepsi and Coke in the 1990s, almost the entire market went under their control.
Making billions from selling carbonated/colored/sweetened water for over 100 years, Coke and Pepsi had emerged as truly global brands. Coke was born 11 years before Pepsi in 1887 and, a century later it still maintained its lead in the global cola market. Pepsi, having always been number two, kept trying harder and harder to beat Coke at its own game. In this never-ending duel, there was always a new battlefront opening up somewhere. In India the battle was more intense, as India was one of the very few areas where Pepsi was the leader in the cola segment. Coke re-entered India in 1993 and soon entered into a deal with Parle, which had a 60% market share in the soft drinks segment with its brands Limca, Thums Up and Gold Spot.
Following this, Coke turned into the absolute market leader overnight. The company also acquired Cadbury Schweppes' soft drink brands Crush, Canada Dry and Sport Cola in early 1999.
Coke was mainly a franchisee-driven operation with the company supplying its soft drink concentrate to its bottlers around the world. Pepsi took the more capital-intensive route of owning and running its own bottling factories alongside those of its franchisees. Over half of Pepsi's sales were made by its own bottling units.
Though Pepsi had a lead over Coke, having come in before the era of economic liberalization in India, it had to spend the early years fighting the bureaucracy and Parle's Ramesh Chuahan every step of the way. Pepsi targeted the youth and seemed to have struck a right chord with the market. Its performance was praiseworthy, while Coke had to struggle to a certain extent to get its act right. In a span of 7 years of its operations in the county, Coke changed its CEO four times. Media reports about the troubles faced by Coke and the corrective measures it adopted were aplenty.
I - BOTTLING
Bottling was the biggest area of conflict between Pepsi and Coke. This was because, bottling operations held the key to distribution, an extremely important feature for soft-drink marketing. As the wars intensified, both companies took pains to maintain good relationships with bottlers, in order to avoid defections to the other camp.
A major stumbling block for Coke was the conflict with its strategic bottling partner, Ramesh Chauhan of the Parle group of companies. Coke alleged that Chauhan had secretly manufactured Coke's concentrate. Chauhan, in turn, accused coke of backtracking on commitments to grant him bottling rights in Pune and Bangalore and threatened legal action. The matter almost reached the courts and the strategic alliance showed signs of coming apart. Industry observers commented that for a company like Coke that was so heavily franchisee driven, antagonizing its chief bottler was suicidal.
While all this was going on, Pepsi wasted no time in moving in for the kill. It made huge inroads in the north, particularly in Delhi where Chauhan had the franchise and also snapped up the opportunity to buy up Coke's bottler Pinakin Shah in Gujarat. Ironically, the Gujarat Bottling Company owned by Shah, also belonged in part to Chauhan for whom the sell-out was a strategic counter-move in his battle with Coke. Coke moved court and obtained an order enforcing its bottler's agreement with the Gujarat company, effectively freezing Pepsi's right to use the acquired capacity for a year. Later, Coke made a settlement of $10 million in exchange for Chauhan foregoing bottling rights in Pune and Bangalore.
Towards the end of 1997, bottling agreements between Coke and many of its bottlers were expiring. Coke began pressurizing its bottlers to sell out and threatened them that their bottling agreements would not be renewed. Media reports claimed that Coke's bottlers were not averse to joining hands with Pepsi. They said they would rather offer their services to Pepsi than selling out to Coke and discontinuing a profitable business. In November 1997, Pepsi made a bid to gain from the feud between Coke and its franchised bottlers. It declared that it was ready to join hands with 'any disgruntled Coke bottler, provided the latter's operations enhanced Pepsi's market in areas where Coke was dominant.' Pepsi was even willing to shift to a franchisee-owned bottling system from its usual practice of focusing on company-owned bottling systems supplemented by a few franchisee-owned bottling companies, provided it found bottlers who would enhance both the quantity and quality, especially in areas where Coke had a substantial marketshare. Pepsi won over Goa Bottling Company, Coke's bottler in Goa and became the market leader in that city.
II - ADVERTISING
When Coke re-entered India, it found Pepsi had already established itself in the soft drinks market. The global advertisement wars between the cola giants quickly spread to India as well. Internationally, Pepsi had always been seen as the more aggressive and offensive of the two, and its advertisements the world over were believed to be more popular than Coke's. It was rumored that at any given point of time, both the companies had their spies in the other camp. The advertising agencies of both the companies (Chaitra Leo Burnett for Coke and HTA for Pepsi) were also reported to have insiders in each other's offices who reported to their respective heads on a daily basis. Based on these inputs, the rival agency formulated its own plans. These hostilities kept the rivalry alive and healthy. However, the tussle took a serious turn at times with complaints to Advertising Standards Council of India, and threats of lawsuits.
While Pepsi always relied on advertisements featuring films stars, pop stars and cricket players, Coke had initially decided to focus on Indian culture and jingles based on Indian classical music. These were also supported by coke advertisements that were popular in the West.
Somehow, Coke's advertisements missed the Indian pulse by a wide margin. Pepsi soon came to be seen as a 'defender' who had humiliated the 'invader' with its superior creative strengths. When Coke bagged the official sponsorship rights to the 1997 Cricket World Cup, Pepsi created media history by unleashing one of the country's most successful advertisement campaigns - the 'Nothing Official About It' campaign . Pepsi took on Coke, even when the latter sponsored the replays of the matches, through the campaign, 'Uncork a Cola.' Media coverage of the war even hinted that the exclusion of Rahul Dravid (Pepsi's model) from the Indian team had something to do with the war. However, Coke had its revenge when it bagged the television sponsorship rights for the 1997 Pepsi Asia Cup. Consequently, Pepsi, in spite of having branded the event was not able to sponsor it.
The severe damage caused by the 'Nothing Official About It' campaign prompted Coke to shift its advertising account from McCann Erickson to Chaitra Leo Burnett in 1997. The 'Eat-Sleep-Drink' series of ads was born soon after. Pepsi responded with ads where cricket stars 'ate a bat' and 'slept on a batting pad' and 'drank only Pepsi.' To counter this, Coke released a print advertisement in March 1998, in which cricketers declared, 'Chalo Kha Liya!' Another Thums Up ad showed two apes copying Pepsi's Azhar and Ajay Jadeja, with the line, 'Don't be a bunder (monkey), Taste the thunder.' For once, it was Pepsi's turn to be at receiving end. A Pepsi official commented, "We're used to competitive advertising, but we don't make fun of the cricketers, just the ad." Though Pepsi decided against suing Coke, the ad vanished soon after the dissent was made public. Commenting on this, a Pepsi official said, "Pepsi is basically fun. It is irreverent and whacky. Our rival is serious and has a 'don't mess with me' attitude. We tend to get away with fun but they have not taken it nicely. They don't find it funny."
Coke then launched one of its first offensive ads, ridiculing Pepsi's ads featuring a monkey. 'Oye! Don't be a bunder! Taste the Thunder', the ad for Thums Up, went with the line, 'issued in the interest of the present generation by Thums Up.'
The 1998 Football World Cup was another event the cola majors fought over. Pepsi organized local or 'para' football matches in Calcutta and roped in Indian football celebrity Bhaichung Bhutia to endorse Pepsi. Pepsi claimed it was the first to start and popularize 'para' football at the local level. However, Coke claimed that it was the first and not Pepsi, to arrange such local games, which Coke referred to as 'pada.'
II - ADVERTISING Contd...
While Pepsi advertisements claimed, 'More football, More Pepsi,' Coke utilized the line, 'Eat football, Sleep football, Drink only Coca-Cola,' later replaced by 'Live football, dream football and drink only Coca-Cola.' Media reports termed Pepsi's promos as a 'me-too' effort to cash in on the World Cup craze, while Coke's activities were deemed to be in line with its commitment and long-term association with the game.
Coke's first offering in the lemon segment (not counting the acquired market leader brand Limca) came in the form of Sprite launched in early 1999. From the very beginning, Sprite went on the offensive with its tongue-in-cheek advertisements. The line 'Baki Sab Bakwas' (All the rest is nonsense) was clearly targeted at Pepsi's claims in its ads. The advertisement made fun of almost all the Pepsi and Mirinda advertisements launched during 1998. Pepsi termed this as Coke's folly, claiming it was giving Sprite a 'wrong positioning,' and that it was a case of an ant trying to fight a tiger.
Sprite received an encouraging response in the market, aided by the high-decibel promotions and pop music concerts held across the country. But Pepsi was confident that 7 Up would hold its own and its ads featuring film stars would work wonders for Mirinda Lemon in the lemon segment.
When Pepsi launched an advertisement featuring Sachin Tendulkar with a modified Hindi movie song, 'Sachin Ala Re,' Coke responded with an advertisement with the song, 'Coke Ala Re.' Following this, Pepsi moved the Advertising Standards Council of India and the Advertising Agencies Association of India, alleging plagarisation of its 'Sachin Ala Re' creation by Coke's advertising agency, Chaitra Leo Burnett, in its 'Coke Ala Re' commercial. The rivals were always engaged in the race to sign the most popular Bollywood and cricket celebrities for their advertisements. More often than not, the companies pitched arch-rivals in their respective fields against each other in the cola wars as well. (Refer Table I)
* The list is not exhaustive. **Aamir and Aishwarya had switched from Pepsi to Coke.
In October 2000, following Coke's 'Jo Chaaho Ho Jaaye' campaign, the brand's 'branded cut-through mark, ' reached an all-time high of 69.5% as against Pepsi's 26.2%. In terms of stochastic share, Coke had a 3% lead over Pepsi with a 25.5% share. Pepsi retaliated with a campaign making fun of Coke's advertisements. The advertisement had a mixed response amongst the masses with fans of both the celebrities defending their idols. In May 2000, Coke threatened to sue Pepsi over the advertisements that ridiculed its own commercials. Amidst wide media coverage, Pepsi eventually stopped airing the controversial advertisement. In February 2001, Coke went on the offensive with the 'Grow up to the Thums Up Challenge' campaign. Pepsi immediately issued a legal notice on Coke for using the 'Yeh Dil Maange More' phrase used in the commercial. Coke officials, however, declined to comment on the issue and the advertisement continued to be aired.
III - PRODUCT LAUNCHES
Pepsi beat Coke in the Diet-Cola segment, as it managed to launch Diet Pepsi much before Coke could launch Diet Coke. After the Government gave clearance to the use of Aspertame and Acesulfame-K (potassium) in combination (ASK), for use in low-calorie soft drinks, Pepsi officials lost no time in rolling out Diet Pepsi at its Roha plant and sending it to retail outlets in Mumbai. Advertisements and press releases followed in quick succession. It was a major victory for Pepsi, as in certain parts of the world, Coke's Diet Coke sold more than Pepsi Cola itself. Brand visibility and taste being extremely important in the soft drink market, Pepsi was glad to have become the first-mover once again.
Coke claimed that Pepsi's one-upmanship was nothing to worry about as Coke already had a brand advantage. Diet Coke was readily available in the market through import channels, while Diet Pepsi was rarely seen.
Hence, Diet Coke has a brand advantage. Coke came up later with a high-profile launch of Diet Coke. However, as expected, diet drinks, as a percentage of the total cola demand, did not emerge as a major area of focus in the years to come. Though the price of the cans was reduced from Rs 18 to Rs 15 in July 2000, it failed to catch the fancy of the buyers. In September 2000, both the companies again slashed the price of their diet cans by over 33% per cent to Rs 10. Both the companies were losing Rs 5-6 per can by selling it at Rs 10, but expected the other products to absorb these losses. A Pepsi official said that the diet cola constituted only about 0.4% of the total market, hence its contribution to revenue was considered insignificant. However, both companies viewed this segment as having immense potential and the price-cuts were part of a long-term strategy.
Coke claimed that it was passing on the benefit of the 5% cut in excise duty to the consumer. Industry experts, however, believed that the price cut had more to do with piling up inventories. Diet drinks in cans had a rather short shelf life (about two months) and the cola majors were simply clearing stocks through this price cut. However, by 2001, the diet-cola war had almost died out with the segment posting extremely low growth rates.
IV – POACHING
Pepsi and Coke fought the war on a new turf in the late 1990s. In May 1998, Pepsi filed a petition against Coke alleging that Coke had 'entered into a conspiracy' to disrupt its business operations. Coke was accused of luring away three of Pepsi's key sales personnel from Kanpur, going as far as to offer Rs 10 lakh a year in pay and perks to one of them, almost five times what Pepsi was paying him. Sales personnel who were earning Rs 48,000 per annum were offered Rs 1.86 lakh a year. Many truck drivers in the Goa bottling plant who were getting Rs 2,500 a month moved to Coke who gave them Rs 10,000 a month. While new recruits in the soft drinks industry averaged a pay hike of between 40-60% Coke had offered 300-400%. Coke, in its reply filed with the Delhi High Court, strongly denied the allegations and also asked for the charges to be dropped since Pepsi had not quantified any damages. Pepsi claimed that this was causing immense damage as those employees who had switched over were carrying with them sensitive trade-related information. After some intense bickering, the issue died a natural death with Coke emerging the winner in another round of the battle.
Pepsi also claimed that its celebrity endorsers were lured into breaking their contracts with Pepsi, and Coke had tried to pressure the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to break a sponsorship deal it had signed for the Pepsi Triangular Series. According to Pepsi's deal with BCCI, Pepsi had the first right of refusal to sponsor all cricket matches played in India where up to three teams participated. The BCCI, however, was reported to have tried to break this contract in favor of Coke. Pepsi went to court protesting against this and won. Pepsi also alleged that Coke's Marketing Director Sanjiv Gupta was to join Pepsi in 1997. But within days of his getting the appointment letter, Coke made a counter offer and successfully lured Gupta away.
V – OTHER FRONTS Contd...
• Coke also turned its attention to Pepsi's stronghold - the retail outlets. Between 1996-98, Coke doubled its reach to a reported 5 lakh outlets, when Pepsi was present at only 3.5 lakh outlets. To reach out to smaller markets, interceptor units in the form of mobile vans were also launched by Coke in 1998 in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. However, in its rush to beat Pepsi at the retail game, Coke seemed to have faltered on the service front. For instance, many shops in Uttar Pradesh frequently ran out of stock and there was no servicing for Coke's coolers. Though Coke began servicing retail outlets on a daily basis like Pepsi, it had to wait for a while before it was able to match Pepsi's retailing strengths.
One of Coke's victories on the retail front was in the form of its tie up with Indian Oil to set up dispensing units at its petrol pumps. Pepsi responded by striking a deal with Bharat Petroleum, whose network was far smaller than Indian Oil's. Of the estimated 2,50,000 retail outlets in the country that sold soft drinks, Pepsi was stocked only at 2,00,000.
In the late 1990s, Pepsi and Coke kept trying to outdo each other in sponsoring music concerts by leading artists in order to reach out to youth. Pepsi also tied up with MTV to hold a series of pop concerts across the country. Coke on the other hand, tied-up with MTV's rival Channel V for a similar venture. There were frequent skirmishes regarding movie sponsorships and vending rights at leading cinema halls.
In May 1999, the companies were involved in a 'freebies war' - promotional schemes designed to help grow the overall cola market besides the usual market share enhancement. Coke was running as many as 12 volume-building, national-level consumer promotions, while Pepsi had 8 schemes for its brands. Coke's schemes ranged from crown exchanges to under the crown prizes, which included toys, cars, free travel, consumer durables etc. Pepsi had crown exchanges and under the crown prizes as well, it also offered free gifts like cards and tattoos. A huge outlay was involved in promoting these schemes, with frequent media splashes.
Is The Rivalry Healthy?
In a market where the product and tastes remained virtually indistinguishable and fairly constant, brand recognition was a crucial factor for the cola companies. The quest for better brand recognition was the guiding force for Coke and Pepsi to a large extent. Colorful images, lively words, beautiful people and places, interesting storylines, innovative/attractive packaging and catchy jingles have made sure that the cola wars, though often scoffed at, rarely go unnoticed. And that's what it has all been about till now. The management of both the companies had to constantly adapt to the changing attitudes and demands of their consumers or lose market share.
The wars seemed to have settled down into a pattern. Pepsi typically won a market, sustained itself for a few years, and then lost to a very determined Coke. In the earlier years, Coke was content with advertising its product to build a strategic positioning for its product. With Pepsi's offensive moves getting stronger and stronger, Coke had no option but to opt for the same modus operandi. Though the market share debates would not have any conclusions, it would be safe to infer that the cola wars were a major factor in keeping customer interest alive in the segment so far. However, in the late 1990s, questions were raised about the necessity and more importantly, about the efficacy of these wars. Answers for this would be too difficult to ascertain and too shaky to confirm.