Pepsi injects fizz into Coke rivalry during Super Bowl week

/ AP

1 in 10 Americans expected to bet on Super Bowl LIII

Pepsi is pouring it on in Coke's house — injecting some fizz into its biggest rivalry during the buildup to the Super Bowl.

While the visitors had called for a "cola truce" on social media with the NFL title game in the shadows of its competitor's Atlanta-based headquarters, it seems to have been more of a Trojan Horse subterfuge designed to lure Coke into lowering its defenses.

Billboards all around Atlanta call for Pepsi to "paint the town blue" and announce "Pepsi in Atlanta — how refreshing."

"I'd say Pepsi's had a great heritage of being a challenger brand," Todd Kaplan, Pepsi's vice president of marketing, said Thursday. "The Pepsi-Coke rivalry has been going on for years. As a marketer, it's been a fun, friendly kind of a thing. As a challenger brand, it's really embracing the role to show everybody we're the official NFL sponsor. Do it in a fun way with a competitor that we respect."

But while Pepsi has been intent on having fun at Coke's expense, Coke will be tapping into its home-field advantage: Because it owns the "pouring rights" at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Coke products will be for sale at the fountains during the game between the Patriots and Rams. But the drinks will be served in NFL-themed Super Bowl cups.

Pepsi statue

That hasn't deterred Pepsi. The company, based in Purchase, New York, wheeled a life-sized statue of its founder, Caleb Bradham, in broad daylight to toast a soda with none other than the statue of Coca-Cola founder John Pemberton. The meeting came just outside the World of Coke museum in downtown Atlanta.

And it didn't last long.

Pepsi was asked to leave a few minutes after setting up on the Coke property that's located just a couple of blocks from the stadium.

But Coke believes it has home-field advantage and has gone out of its way to stay above the fray.

"I think certainly they came and they used Atlanta as an opportunity to have an Atlanta-focused message, and what I would say is that we have a message that is uniquely Coca-Cola," said Brynn Bardacke, vice president of content and creative excellence for Coca-Cola North America. "I think we're going to leave the rumbling to the football.

"We're going to use our advertising to talk about what's important to the brand."

Longtime rivalry

The latest chapter in the decades-long rivalry between Coke, the longtime leader in worldwide soda sales, and its not-quite-as-massive rival has been entertaining.

Ask almost anyone around Atlanta — anywhere, really — and they have very strong opinions about the soda giants.

Mark Meek, a Carolina Panthers fan from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, wasted no time choosing a side.

"I like being the little guy, fighting for his place in the world," he said. "I like it because it's from my home state and we've got a little rivalry thing going with Georgia anyway. I like Lowe's more than Home Depot. I like Pepsi more than I like Coke. I like the Panthers more than I like the Falcons. I like Bojangles more than I like Chick-Fil-A."

His friend Keith Priest, also Panthers fan from Winston-Salem, is a Coke man all the way.

"Pepsi's too sweet, way too sweet," he said. "The carbonation seems better in a Coke. Every now and then I'll get Cherry Coke, but other than that, it's always just Coke."

Coke's Super Bowl ad

Lest anyone forget that, Coke has bought the time slot right before the national anthem to roll out its big Super Bowl ad, "A Coke is a Coke," a strategic move it would've made regardless of Pepsi being in his hometown.

"Well, we are here to welcome everybody to the city, Pepsi included," Bardacke said. "Our effort is really focused on what our brand is and means to people and really what we offer. The message at a high level is that Coke is for everyone."

Maybe so, but not for Kaplan. Pepsi knows where it stands in pecking order, and has launched a marketing campaign that Pepsi is "more than OK."

"Every day there's a cultural truth that people get asked this question when they're in a restaurant." Kaplan said. "Sometimes they will order our competitor's beverage and they'll be asked the question, 'Is Pepsi OK?' That's a question that, for years, people get asked, and we wanted to take that truth and flip it on its head. Absolutely, Pepsi is more than OK."

But not for Atlanta resident Jack Jessen.

"You've got to go with the hometown teams," he said. "Coke and Falcons."

For Houston resident Zephra Belle, there's no way she's drinking Coke.

"I'm Team Pepsi all the way," she said. "It's sweeter. It makes me feel better. I haven't adjusted to Coke. I don't understand the Coke people."

First published on February 1, 2019

© 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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