Imagine a Pepsi advertising campaign with not a single grizzly bear, no Cindy Crawford, not even a Michael Jackson or a Shaquille O’Neal.
Imagine instead a cabdriver who cries when he sees a Pepsi parking lot because the Pepsi trucks are just so beautiful. Or a Pepsi delivery guy-turned-hero with red and blue tights, who calls himself Pepsiman and crashes through walls to deliver the goods.
These characters have achieved in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec something no Shaq or Cindy has been able to do anywhere else in North America: They have helped Pepsi seize the top spot in the cola sweepstakes with twice the market share of its archrival and perennial No. 1, Coca-Cola.
Pepsi Cola Canada Beverages Inc. is convinced that it was its decision to use “indigenous” advertising that has made Pepsi sales grow at a steady rate for more than a decade. Who else but French Canadians would know that such goofy ads would produce such spectacular results?
“It was the right decision for us. We truly believe that our 2-to-1 dominance is due to that decision,” says Stacey Mowbray, vice president for marketing at Pepsi Canada.
For regional advertising agencies that want to show American multinationals the advantages of going local at a time when everyone is talking about the globalization of brands and marketing strategies, the Pepsi story is the perfect argument.
The history of this unusual campaign goes back to the early ‘80s, Mowbray says. At that time, Pepsi was using mostly translated American copy in the Quebec market and sales were not going well. In 1984, Mowbray recalls, Pepsi was badly outsold by the competition, and market research showed there was no reason to expect great results from the New Generation-Michael Jackson campaign about to be launched in the U.S. and in the rest of Canada.
Confronted with this dismal situation, Toronto-based Pepsi Canada asked its agency in Quebec at the time, the Montreal branch of J. Walter Thompson, to find a local spokesman who would fit in with the young and “new generation” approach of Pepsi’s global strategy. The agency suggested using humor and recommended a young and upcoming comedian, Claude Meunier, a specialist in absurd caricatures drawn from stereotypical Quebecois characters. Meunier would not only be the main actor, but also the writer.
“Toronto’s decision to switch to indigenous Quebec campaigns was seen as a risk, but it was grounded in good research,” Mowbray says. And the U.S. headquarters quickly gave its green light. So while the rest of the continent watched Michael Jackson and Pepsi talk about the “choice of a new generation,” Quebeckers started seeing strange things on their TV sets, like ads featuring a bizarre ice hockey player who could not pronounce “Pepsi” properly.
Meunier was shown, for instance, taking a shower in his hockey uniform and talking to his Pepsi can. In another ad, he played a hunter hiding in the bush with a pathetically camouflaged Pepsi bottle. “The hunting season has always attracted a lot of people, a lot of ducks and a lot of Pepsi,” said the character in his typical absurd fashion--and the province loved it.
According to Pepsi, sales soared in 1985 and 1986 and continued to grow steadily afterward. At the same time, Meunier’s popularity climbed quickly. He made a movie and eventually became the co-star and writer of one of the most popular sitcoms in the history of Quebec television, “La P’tite Vie,” with audiences as large as 4.1 million--in a province of 7.3 million people.
This year, Pepsi Canada changed advertising agencies to consolidate all its activities with BBDO. In Quebec, the account went with PNMD Communications, BBDO’s Montreal branch. Meunier left the J. Walter Thompson team he had worked with for 13 years and followed Pepsi.
With PNMD, he built a new campaign around Pepsiman, a character who will become more and more absurd with time, says Meunier, who remains the main writer: “Pepsiman is the anti-hero. And the ultimate delivery guy.”
Right now Pepsiman only goes through roofs and walls to bring Pepsi bottles to thirsty people. But one day, Meunier says, “He’s probably going to show up through the dishwasher.”
The terms of the Meunier-Pepsi contract are confidential, but speculation is that the cola company paid a high price to keep him aboard and maintain Pepsi’s leading position in Quebec’s $361-million soft-drink market.
“It is our feeling our relationship is cost-effective,” Mowbray says.
Nobody talks publicly about which brand has what share of the beverage market in Quebec. AC Nielsen, the only organization that measures market shares by brands in Canada, is not releasing its figures. But according to a Toronto financial analyst who asked not to be identified, the leadership position claimed by Pepsi is reasonable. In fact, he says, “They are beating the hell out of Coke in that market.”
Asked for comment, Tina Warren, director of public affairs in Canada for Coca-Cola Beverages Ltd., said Coke’s “sales are strong” but did not dispute the Pepsi figures.
The extent of Pepsi’s dominance in the Quebec market is apparently unique. Though Pepsi says it is ahead of Coke in Pakistan and the Middle East, its leadership in those countries is narrower than in Canada’s French-speaking province.
Corinne Berneman, professor of marketing at the Hautes Etudes Commerciales, a Montreal business school, thinks it’s too simple to give all the credit to local advertising. She points out that Pepsi’s image has always been more positive in Quebec than on the rest of the continent and that Pepsi’s distribution efforts may also have played a major role in the increase in sales, especially at the institutional level, in restaurants, bars, etc.
“According to my studies, the origin of an ad is not a factor in the public’s appreciation,” she says.
Does this mean Meunier’s Pepsiman could sell Pepsi anywhere? Gabrielle Pascal, a retired McGill University literature professor who once organized a symposium on Meunier’s humor, believes that if other advertising agencies were willing to look for the right comedians, they could apply the Meunier approach elsewhere.
“But they would have to find someone who could reconstruct his characters,” says the professor, a specialist in humor in French and Quebec literature. “They would have to use similar mechanisms and apply them to a different mentality. And that is not easy.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
A perennial second to Coca-Cola around the world, Pepsi enjoys an estimated 2-1 lead over Coke in the Canadian province of Quebec. Coke dominates in all major markets, including Canada as a whole. The only exceptions besides Quebec are Pakistan and parts of the Middle East, where Pepsi is narrowly ahead. Market shares for selected countries:
Coca-Cola: 41.7 %
* Source: Beverage Marketing Corp.
* Researched by JENNIFER OLDHAM / Los Angeles Times