A riposte of Pepsico’s Slice

Last summer PepsiCo, pushed the health agenda with a single-minded focus. It launched Pepsi Black and Tropicana Essentials, a fortified fruit-vegetable juice hybrid. Asked if there’s an overarching theme this year, Vipul Prakash, senior VP – beverages at PepsiCo, grows thoughtful. “We have to balance,” he admits, adding, “We have to lead the consumer but we cannot lead from five km ahead. We have to be a footstep ahead. Our job is to give them a folio without taking aspiration away from CSD. But we should not shift the gears so much that we totally alienate the consumer.”

Prakash feels PepsiCo has struck this balance quite well, but the cola major is entering this summer after a year in which its category, pegged at Rs. 24,000 crore, has been stagnant. Globally, PepsiCo’s food portfolio is outperforming beverage.

It’s against this backdrop that PepsiCo is embarking on a radical restaging of Slice, which was folded into Tropicana in 2014 and trying a new tech-powered version of an age-old strategy for its flagship.

The idea of a drink pitched as a perfect pairing for food is as old as wine and cheese. Colas were quick to pile on. All of us most likely recall posters in college canteens insisting that samosas go better with Coke or touting Pepsi as the best accompaniment to pav bhaji.

And yet, Pepsi is revisiting this strategy and is remarkably committed to it – Prakash assures us we won’t see anything else from the brand all year. The difference is coordination and technology. It is driven by Pepsi’s new tagline, ‘Kyon Sookhe Sookhe Hi?’, an original brand thought and not an adaptation. PepsiCo’s research revealed that connecting with friends over food was one of the key demand spaces for the cola brand.

“We realized the biggest thing friends get together over is food. And so the insight: life is incomplete without friendship, food is incomplete without Pepsi,” says PepsiCo’s Prakash. The line emerged from conversations with young consumers: “One of the 18 to 20-year olds said, ‘we don’t want it to be dry.’ Which is how ‘Kyon Sookhe Sookhe Hi’ was born,” he said. Not just that, Prakash says, “If you’ve ordered food and not Pepsi while checking out on Zomato, it will prompt you with the line.” PepsiCo is however not satisfied running TV commercials and going the ‘food is better with Pepsi’ route.

And so, it has tied up with 40,000 eateries across the country. The PET bottles have packaging full of groan inducing food related puns — ‘Scene Bun Gaya’ with a burger is one of these — but they also have a code which once SMSed, unlocks a list of eateries in a 2km radius where one can get a discounted meal. Pepsi has tied up with not just local eateries but also QSRs like Subway. The price-offs go all the way up to 50 per cent.

Via this route, Pepsi intends activating the otherwise irregular and passive pairing of food with cola. It has even approached restaurants currently aligned to rival beverages, with guaranteed traffic touted as an incentive to change. Cold drink consumption peaks through the summer while people go to restaurants all year round; via this route Pepsi hopes to beat the post-season slump.

The idea finds favour with marketing consultant Jagdeep Kapoor of Samsika: “It will work because it is localised, participative marketing: tied to friends, food and drink. The rational benefit is a discount.” He however cautions that the execution needs to be top notch, especially in terms of choice of outlets. The second challenge is to communicate not just Kyon Sookhe Sookhe Hi, but the year-long promotion. Kapoor says, “Before availability, they need awareness.”

A senior marketer with a previous background in the CSD industry believes, given marketing structures, the promotion may be considered a sales expense and could get step-motherly treatment from marketing, which is more focused on building a brand: “Marketing guys could argue against this saying why should I pay money to build the restaurant’s brand? That’s why, though such offers are ubiquitous across banks, cards and loyalty programmes, few make a success of it beyond 30 per cent to 40 per cent. They are not advertised enough.”

After years slumbering within Tropicana, Slice, a brand built by racy advertising — remember Aamsutra? — is back. This time as a fizzy drink with fruit juice in flavours like apple, jeera, cream soda, etc. Prakash admits there was a raging debate on whether to put these under Mirinda or Slice. But the latter won because of its Indian origins. Given the ambitions to get into highly localised flavours like khus, Mirinda may have been the wrong fit. Available in seven states, Prakash is keenly observing offtake. “If it’s a one-state strategy, it loses steam. This time we have an all-India strategy.”

Slice also marks one of PepsiCo’s fastest launches: conceived of in July 2017 and on the shelves in March 2018. Prakash allows himself a little self-congratulation considering launches usually take 18 to 24 months with back-and-forth between India and the global HQ.
These are low sugar drinks — he is clear PepsiCo won’t launch another full sugar product — something that could only have been managed in a range where people had no expectations. It’s how PepsiCo intends beating the poor performance of sugar-free variants so far; given low per capita consumption, it’s been theorized that when Indians do go in for a cola, they mostly want a fully loaded product.

Speaking of consumer feedback, Prakash says, “One of our consumers gave it 8 on 10. If this had been a Pepsi variant it would have to be a 10. But in this case, we said let’s launch, learn, get feedback and refine. That’s how entrepreneurs work.”

Samsika’s Kapoor believes Slice could succeed considering “the juice market is galloping, the second fastest growing after water.” Less sugar is likely to be a sell in a country with a large diabetic population. What PepsiCo needs to watch out for is not sacrificing taste at the altar of health. The ex-cola marketing veteran fully supports the comeback considering he estimates PepsiCo spent over Rs. 600 crores building Slice. The important thing now is to stay the course and protect it from the vicissitudes of global and local management. “All of this has happened after a new CEO came in and these are CEO-level decisions,” he says, adding, “It’s important to move past orange and mango since India is not a one juice country.” He also sees this as a fallout of Paperboat, making marketers aware of India’s acceptance of local flavours. He concludes, “It depends on the commitment to being local. If they believe in it, it could be massive. But if the need of the hour is making bosses happy, then your guess is as good as mine on how long it will last.”

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