I would rather quaff a flagon of turpentine than drink Pepsi, yet I remain sentimental about the brand. As it happens, Pepsi-Cola was invented in 1898 in my hometown of New Bern, N.C., by pharmacist Caleb Bradham, thus ensuring his place in the history of gout.
My wistful interest in Pepsi was raised to alarm last fall when PepsiCo Inc. unveiled the redesign of the soft drink's logo. Gone is the familiar globe with the white horizontal waveform, a design that in its friendly graphical lilt connects to Pepsi's century-old visual heritage. The redesign -- just now hitting shelves and billboards -- is a flattened derivative of the previous one with a right-slanting organic swell, a curiously pregnant white diagonal line traversing the logo.
It looks like some strange foreign knockoff of Pepsi -- Pipse, maybe. I'm pretty sure I hate it.
With the consumer economy largely on Thorazine, now might seem an unwise time to do an extreme makeover of your trusted brand, but logo revamps are all the rage. Call it Recession Rebranding. In the last year Xerox Corp., Anheuser-Busch and Best Buy Co. have spruced up their graphics. Heinz ketchup got rid of the traditional pickle on its label (alas, poor Gherkin, I knew him, Horatio).
"People are running around saying, Oh my gosh, we've got to do something," says Scott Montgomery, creative director at advertising design firm Bradley & Montgomery in Indianapolis. "There are all these pressures. Sometimes it's a good thing, if you can make sure you're not throwing away something important."
That's a big if.
Created by Arnell Group, which was also behind the recently abandoned redesign for Tropicana orange juice packaging, the new Pepsi logo will be front and center in PepsiCo's three-year, $1.2-billion campaign that will overhaul all its beverage brands. Pepsi will overtop the cultural levee with this redesigned logo, plastering it on a zillion billboards, merchandise, point-of-sale signage and ad inventory for TV, radio, Web, mobile, pro sports and social media.
The very ubiquity explains why people who would never drink Pepsi -- like me -- care about the company's brand mark. Such mega-advertising swamps our shared psychic space and makes us invested whether we like a product or not. Which is to say, if you have eyesight, you're a stakeholder.
In design and marketing circles, Pepsi's new logo has gotten a reception roughly as warm as might be given a bagpipe player stepping onto an elevator.
"Static, empty, vaguely bland," wrote John McWade, founder and creative director of design magazine Before & After in Roseville, Calif. "It conveys no energy, no motion, no effervescence, and, well, it's not young."
McWade's is a sober and thoughtful critique amid a cannon-blast of outraged graffiti-board scorn from consumers: "awful," terrible," "monstrous," "stupid" and many less-polite words to that effect. As for the comments accusing Pepsi of cynically co-opting Obama's sunrise-over-the-heartland campaign graphic, or those noting Pepsi's new plastic bottles have a vaguely, well, uncircumcised molding to them -- let's not go there.
Behold, then, the scattered and burning debris field of one of corporate America's most misbegotten image makeovers.
What were they thinking? Usually consumers shout this question into the vain, uncaring wind. But this time an answer came back, sort of. In February, after the initial flurry of negative reaction, a document titled "Breathtaking" surfaced on the Web.
Purportedly leaked from Arnell Group -- which, it is speculated, was paid in excess of $1 million for its services -- the 27-page "design strategy" paper reads like a Dilbert-esque parody of overwrought ad agency triplespeak. According to "Breathtaking," the new Pepsi logo lies along a trajectory of human consciousness that includes in its arc the Vastu Shastra, a 3,000-year-old Hindu architectural guide; Pythagoras (the Golden Section); the Roman architect Vitruvius; the Fibonacci series; Descartes; and Corbusier.
The document, which has gone madly viral in the last month, appears to be authentic, but so far Arnell Group has not confirmed that.
The logo also apparently is capable of the Einsteinian bending of light along shopping aisles. Take that, stubbornly Newtonian Coke.
It's from this document that I learned that the flourish in the logo is actually intended to suggest a mouth in the Pepsi face. After all the Fibonacci series and geodynamic diagrams, it turns out the logo is a glorified happy face! The diet "face" is a thin-smiled smirk; the regular Pepsi is a smile; and the Max face is, I guess, a wildly inappropriate, over-caffeinated laugh.
Raise your hands if you picked up on that. Me neither. Now that it's been pointed out to me, all I can see is Terrance and Phillip of "South Park."
"I still don't think I understand the justification for the different smiles," Montgomery says. "I don't know that is something that is even understandable. . . . It does make the design business look a little bit ridiculous and expensive."
Succinctly, then, Arnell Group has outsmarted itself, plumbing the depths of Western genius to come up with a Big Idea that is ultimately very dumb. Why? Think about it. What is the operative metaphor of Pepsi? Pepsi is that which Coca-Cola is not. Coke is majestically, eternally red; therefore Pepsi has been obliged, over the decades, to acquire an ever-deeper shade of blue. Coke's is a brand mark out of time, a living Smithsonian exhibit. Pepsi is required to be perpetually young, generational and ephemeral (this is actually the fourth logo design for Pepsi since 1991).
Clearly, Arnell Group felt compelled to eliminate the last vestige of similarity between the brand marks: the sinuous waveform that traverses the old Pepsi logo and beats across Coca-Cola's script logo -- a similarity that dates all the way back to old Bradham.
And the logo isn't even very pretty. So why is this brand smiling?
Dan Neil will appear in Tuesday's Company Town, writing on advertising and marketing. He can be reached at email@example.com.