On a field visit to Navi Mumbai, PepsiCo's chief marketing officer Vipul Prakash gazes with satisfaction at his company's range of beverages, arranged at a vantage point above racks of traditional snacks and finger foods. "I can put up the best TV screen here and people won't see my ads as many times as they see this," he says.
By "this", Prakash is referring to packaging, a hitherto under-utilised weapon in Indian marketing. However, PepsiCo intends putting packaging front and centre. It's the big bet for 2016, which will hopefully trounce the competition in the annual cola wars that play out through gruelling summer months.
The rationale is quite simple. TV audiences are getting fragmented and ad avoidance is on the rise, even if it's not as much of a problem in India as it is elsewhere. Prakash says: "Even if a consumer watches our ad, it's for 30 seconds and a one way story." Bottles on the other hand are held for anywhere between 10 minutes and an hour.
And so PepsiCo is opting for an inversion of its strategy. Previously, packaging would change to reflect a large mass media campaign that broke on TV. "But if the consumer interacts with the pack so much, can we start the story there?" is what the cola giant is seeking an answer to.
While admitting that the full model is yet to be cracked, PepsiCo nevertheless claims to have notched some early successes. For instance 7Up Revive, a variant launched last year in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, set to go countrywide this year, hit the market in distinctive blue glass bottles with its PET variants featuring a full length wraparound plastic sleeve. The new pack helped highlight the features of Revive, going a long way to educating a sceptical consumer. Research later revealed that the No1 reason for trial was packaging.
For its flagship cola, PepsiCo is rolling out a desi variant of its global emoji campaign. A consumer can pick a bottle with an emoji that reflects his mood provided the range is between happy, party, naughty, etc. (Anger or existential despair are not included for obvious reasons.) An SMS code gives the consumer an opportunity for instant gratification with grand prizes like trips to Las Vegas and Ibiza, or net practice with Virat Kohli. There will be a TV commercial at some point, but Prakash believes with 38 emojis over 10 categories, the story is complete using just packaging. Even if the second stage of consumers sending in SMS does not take off to the extent Pepsi would like, he confesses to being very satisfied with stage one; "The visual appeal on shelves itself tells us the first part has worked."
Those expecting a My Can style TV blitz for Pepsi's 150 ml variant have a long wait ahead. As of now the mini can, priced at `15, is going to be pushed only by a series of web exclusive films, built around the theme 'never underestimate the little things in life'.
For Mountain Dew, the second leg of its real heroes campaign is embracing digital media in a big way. Instead of buying pre-rolls or banner ads, PepsiCo is relying on a combination of its bottles and Blippar, a service that links consumers to videos via codes on packaging. Part of the stories about the four real heroes begins on the label, provoking curiosity. A consumer wanting to know more can be taken to a branded video, to be watched when and where he chooses. While digital used to be considered an add on to TV in media dark areas, it's becoming the lead medium says Prakash; "TV reach is minimal but our bottles are everywhere." PepsiCo is working on weekly audio stories with content providers in Uttar Pradesh hoping to net potentially millions of otherwise hard to pin down consumers.
It's quite a shift at a time when most marketers still balk at riding on the consumer's precious bandwidth to deliver their messages. However Prakash believes "It's not about the brand but the story. If they've watched four minutes and enjoyed it, two seconds of branding will do more than 30 seconds of in your face messaging. I keep telling my teams, 'If a consumer has X amount of bandwidth, would he watch a song or your content?' Your content has to be interesting enough to be chosen." Even the Mountain Dew films deal more with the philosophy of risk than with traditional endorsement. "We don't show our real heroes drinking Mountain Dew" says Prakash.
Going for full length wraps on bottles is something PepsiCo has worked on in the past. It invariably got derailed because it was considered too expensive, with marketing and production bickering over who was to pay for it. But things are different now with even the CFO insisting Revive not be launched unless it has a full sleeve. The brand manager on 7Up Nimbooz Masala Soda agreed to pull back on television to accommodate full wraparounds. Says Prakash, "When you get the support from the top it's easier. I thought we'd not be able to do it for three years. But when there's a sales and consumer pull it comes together." The sales force in particular has been galvanised by the new packaging and are pushing for more in store real estate. Even the visicoolers have been revamped to display packs to best advantage.
According to Shripad Nadkarni, founder MarketGate, who has previous experience at Coca-Cola, "Using packaging to drive home the message is a well established practise especially for teen and lifestyle brands.
The use of emojis as a language that's current is a good strategy." However he cautions that, packaging and TV serve very different purposes and one should not be at the expense of the other. When it comes to wraprounds, he believes these are best tactically deployed else they run the risk of becoming first the new norm and then the new clutter. However the biggest challenge which has as yet been inadequately addressed by either player, according to Nadkarni, is finding out how they can play a more powerful role in the lives of teens.
As for whether it's all going to work, Prakash admits that's still something that remains to be seen. Whether packaging is in fact the answer will be revealed if the packs survive the transition from scorching summers to the squelchy humid monsoons.