Forget your bet on who will win today’s Super Bowl matchup or how well Americans will do at the Sochi Olympics. The real battle this weekend and in the days to come will be among two longtime foes: Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
The beverage giants are hoping to get more bottles of Coke Zero or Pepsi Next in the hands of consumers through advertising in a category that brings people of all backgrounds together — sports.
But the companies are taking different roads to get there.
Pepsi, which has invested heavily since the 1980s in the Super Bowl, is putting all its eggs in the basket of the Big Game and the 181 million to 185 million Americans expected to watch. It will do so with a handful of commercials, concerts and sponsorship of the halftime show.
Coca-Cola, on the other hand, will participate in the Super Bowl with two ads of its own. But the company may see its real impact as one of the title sponsors of the upcoming two-week long Winter Olympics, a role it has had throughout the Games’ history.
The last Winter Olympics in Vancouver attracted 190 million U.S. viewers over two weeks. The Sochi Games kicks off Thursday.
Industry observers say there is a reason the two brands are putting their dollars in different buckets.
The Super Bowl allows Pepsi, which has traditionally been considered the edgier of the two brands, to take risks with an off-the-wall commercial that could have people talking around the water cooler the next day.
Conversely, the Olympics helps the more conservative Coca-Cola drive sales to a global audience for 14 consecutive days, especially in places where it is seeing most of its growth, such as South America, Africa and China.
“As the No. 2 brand, Pepsi can be a little bolder and brasher in the Super Bowl and they embrace that,” said Abe J. Schear, a partner and a leader in the retail practice of law firm Arnall Golden Gregory. “Coke is one of the great global brands and when you have that you want to make sure you are consistent in what that stands for.”
Both are under pressure to boost sales. Growing concerns about obesity and efforts by health advocates, local governments and some colleges to encourage Americans to consume less sugar had led to declining sales of carbonated drinks in North America. That’s critical because soft drink make up about half of sales for the companies.
The brands have fought back, reminding consumers that they offer an assortment of drinks, including water, teas and low-calorie soft drinks, all of which are having a more favorable impact on profits. The companies also have introduced more sizes of their carbonated drinks to attract customers who are sticking with their fizzy favorites, but want them in smaller doses.
Leaders for the brands dismiss talk that they choose one path over another. While Pepsi does not advertise in the Olympics, the company has spent billions in other global sports events, the company said. It advertises and sponsors soccer in Russia, volleyball in Brazil, racing in Mexico and cricket in India.
And Coca-Cola pointed out that it has been a Super Bowl advertiser for years.
“Both the Big Game and the Olympic Games are a very important focus for us,” Coca-Cola spokeswoman Kerry Tressler said in an email.
But it’s clear that the companies are putting a different emphasis on the events.
Pepsi has been pushing hard to drive interest in its presence this year during the Super Bowl. The brand has for weeks teased a commercial that will star football personalities Deion Sanders, Mike Ditka, Terry Bradshaw and Shannon Sharpe, including running a spot during last week’s Grammy awards.
“PepsiCo and the NFL have been a winning combination for three decades,” said spokesman Jeff Dahncke. “It’s one of the most powerful properties in sports, which we’re able to leverage year round to drive sales for our brands.”
In addition Pepsi, which also has a snack division, will have five different brands represented in the Super Bowl, including pre-game spots to Sabra’s role as the official dip of the contest.
Not to be outdone, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola released on Monday one of its two ads planned for the event. “Going All The Way” spotlights Adrian, a kid who runs a touchdown after a fumble on a football field in suburban Green Bay, Wis. But instead of stopping under the goal posts for a celebratory dance, he continues running all the way to Lambeau Field.
Unlike the Super Bowl, Olympics advertising is more muted, said Tim Mescon, an economist with Columbus State University. They have been particularly subdued this year because there have been few Olympic competitors who have stood out such as 2012 Summer Games swimmer Michael Phelps.
“Nobody ever previews Olympic ads,” he said. “But the Games are clearly the single most valuable platform for sports marketing that you have because they are global.”
Safety issues in Sochi also have overshadowed much of what viewers can expect. Coca-Cola and other big sponsor such as McDonald’s have also found themselves in the crosshairs of gay rights groups who want sponsors to take a tough stance against Russia’s anti-“gay propaganda” laws. The Communist nation last year passed legislation banning dissemination of information about homosexuality to children.
But Mescon said whichever path Pepsi and Coca-Cola take on sporting events, the important thing is to reach their intended audience.
“For Coke, the bulk of their profits come from outside the U.S.,” he said. “And the Super Bowl is in New York this year in the shadows of Pepsi’s (Purchase, N.Y.) headquarters. You might say this is their Olympics.”