Pepsi’s chief marketing officer unveils his vision to take the soft drink brand to the next level – with everything from infused pepperoni to cola to a diverse, tech-driven marketing strategy.
Pepsi today unveiled its latest cheeky product activation: Cola-Infused Pepperoni Pizza.
The move is an extension of the brand’s ‘Better With Pepsi’ messaging platform – which caught attention last year with the clever campaign that slipped the brand’s iconic circular logo onto carry-out bags fast food, suggesting that burgers go best with Pepsi.
Now, the soda supplier says it’s not just burgers, but another of America’s favorite foods — pizza — that’s best served with a cool, refreshing Pepsi. In fact, the brand claims that’s why among national pizza chains Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, Papa John’s, Marco’s Pizza, Papa Murphy’s and Hungry Howie’s Pizza, 72% currently serve Pepsi, according to a recent survey.
“The reason why many [pizza shops] for Pepsi, it’s because they know there’s science backing [the pairing,]says Todd Kaplan, Marketing Director of Pepsi. “The bite of acidity that comes from the Pepsi really complements the sauce and the cheese…and the Italian spice is complemented by the hint of citrus that is unique to a Pepsi.” Ultimately, he says, the brand figured a pepperoni pizza would be the best kind of slice to pair with a Pepsi, thanks to the extra Italian spices and flavorful umami that come with the meat.
Kaplan notes that pepperoni was first created by Italian Americans at the turn of the century in lower Manhattan – “to enhance the taste of pizza…to bring out the flavors of cheese and sauce” . And since consumers have been shown to believe that Pepsi enhances the flavor of pizza, the brand took notice. “What would happen if we put these two things together?” said Kaplan.
So the brand commissioned the Culinary Institute of America Consulting – a business arm of the famed cooking school – to create a new citrus-and-cola version of the country’s favorite pizza topping. The one-of-a-kind recipe uses 100% pork infused with Pepsi Zero Sugar, combining Italian herbs with the citrus and caramel notes of Pepsi. The sausage is smoked for hours and finished with an extra Pepsi glaze. Finally, the individual pepperoni slices are branded with a crispy Pepsi logo and layered on top of a pizza. “It’s absolutely delicious,” Kaplan says.
The brand will be handing out free slices of its limited-edition Pepsi-Roni pizza at Made in New York Pizza West Village in New York City on Friday, May 20 in honor of National Pizza Day. For fans outside of Manhattan, the brand promises to offset Pepsi purchases up to $3 if purchased with pizza at a number of locations across the country. Plus, it’s offering an exclusive $5 DoorDash discount for any pizza order of $15 or more that also includes a Pepsi.
Pepsi has invested significant sums in both long-term product innovation and limited-edition flavor experiences and crossover partnerships over the past few years. In March, the soda giant launched a nitrogen-infused version of its classic cola for a smoother, creamier finish; the product is now available in major markets around the world. During the same month, the brand partnered with IHOP to launch a special maple syrup flavored drink available for a limited time and only to select contest winners.
Kaplan says the brand is increasingly focusing on one-off activations and product launches such as Pepsi Maple Syrup Soda and the new Pepsi-Roni Pizza, which he likens to “drop” culture in the sneaker industries and of fashion. “Whether it’s a limited product drop or pushing the envelope with culinary things or true retail innovations, we’re always looking to find new ways for consumers to enjoy our products and we want to making sure we’re connecting with consumers the right way.”
Kaplan hints that the fun has only just begun when it comes to mash-ups and Pepsi food campaigns. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw us keep popping up with new categories and new ways to bring what we call our brand’s ‘situational salience’ to life with wine pairings.”
From the sounds, the possibilities could be endless – when asked about his favorite unexpected food pairing, he says, “Chinese food goes well with Pepsi.” Carbonation really breaks down fat.
Creativity seems to pay off; Kaplan says that over the past three-and-a-half years, the team has “toured the ship” for the brand. “For decades before, the brand was in decline,” he says. “We’ve now had 15 consecutive quarters of sales growth, which has been great.” And it’s not just the soda brand reaping the rewards – parent PepsiCo’s latest financial report, for the fiscal quarter ending April 26, saw revenue beat analysts’ estimates, despite the hit. by halting operations in Russia in light of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. .
Beyond the innovation happening at the brand level, the recent growth of the category as a whole almost certainly plays a role. The latest data from Beverage Digest indicates that the soft drink category saw its first sales volume gain in 17 years.
“The category has grown – largely [has to do with] the pandemic and the idea of indulgence and nostalgia and the…comfort that people are looking for with products,” Kaplan explains. “Soda and specifically cola – and [the role it] plays – is a beautiful basis in people’s lives. It plays a part in providing those little moments of pleasure and indulgence. That, I think, is here to stay.
Kaplan says the brand uses this information to inform its approach. A clear example of Pepsi tapping into consumer demand for nostalgic experiences came to life last year when it tapped Doja Cat to remake the Grease classic You’re the One I Want to promote its line of drinks inspired by sodas. “We were delighted to take this [consumer demand] and innovate new ways within that to continue to drive the growth of our brand and our fans,” Kaplan said.
And while Pepsi’s messaging may be nostalgic, its marketing strategy is futuristic. “It’s one of the most exciting and challenging times to be a marketer, due to how quickly the world is changing around us.” He sees these changes taking place in cultural movements, where consumers spend their time, the emergence of new technologies and the increasing fragmentation of the media ecosystem. “A lot of historical models of media buying and how agencies are informed and work are still based on this old school mentality.”
And he’s hyper-focused on getting Pepsi out of those molds to make sure it’s a brand for the future. “What I’ve spent a lot of time on with my team is really understanding how we build and create experiences where people can search for our brand – like pepperoni and maple syrup [product drops] and like creating our own content, whether it’s a show like Becoming a Popstar on MTV that we came up with. We want to build things that [enable us to] engage with fans in a different way, rather than just throwing ads in front of them, which is a simplified way of talking about how marketing used to be done.
As part of that effort, Kaplan is focusing on diversifying Pepsi’s marketing strategy (and he’s all-in on the web3). “Most people don’t discover brands just through paid media – they’ve earned media, social media… they watch content, they participate in core experiences, things like that. It’s kind of where I see everything happening. And I coached my team to stimulate creativity in this area.