The COVID-19 pandemic that has upended daily life in the U.S. for more than a year appears to be in retreat, leading to a loosening of restrictions that marketers are eager to tap into as they prepare summer campaigns. Look no further than recent efforts from Coca-Cola and Pepsi, two of the country's most iconic and enduring beverage brands. The former last week introduced packaging that features poetic copy themed around being "Open for Summer" while the latter is running a national TV spot titled "The Mess We Miss" that depicts a future where people joyously return to a variety of germ-spreading activities, including sharing food and drinks, to the tune of "Tomorrow" from the musical "Annie."
These heavy-hitter brands — frequently engaged in "marketing wars" over the decades — stepping up to bat now could send a signal to the rest of the industry that it's OK to talk about a long-awaited reopening, even as pandemic uncertainties linger. Navigating those uncertainties remains a challenge, however — one that Coke is handling with a lighter touch, according to creatives.
"When giant brands make moves, other people decide they should as well," said Steve O'Connell, partner and co-chief creative officer at agency Red Tettemer O'Connell + Partners. "A lot of brands are nervous about how to talk, and I think this definitely paves the way to show how it can be done."
Some experts viewed Coke's cautious approach as a potentially safer model to follow than Pepsi's as the seasonal marketing floodgates start to open. Pepsi's ad, developed with VaynerMedia, doesn't hesitate to show the types of close encounters that have become loaded with risk, with spittle and sweat flying and several close-ups of hands making contact. Many consumers will likely continue to hold onto hygiene habits adopted during the pandemic, including mask-wearing and thorough hand-washing, for the near future. While Pepsi's concept is deliberately forward-looking, viewers traumatized by the past year may simply not be ready to engage with representations of messy pre-pandemic behaviors.
"I personally would've related to it more if it talked about the other messiness of life that happens when we're all together," O'Connell said.
"The germ-spreading thing ... one, that's kind of gross in regular times, but now, I'm just not ready for that," he added. "We've all learned that we should probably be more hygienic than we were. Ironically, that final shot of seeing the Pepsi being shared was probably the worst shot for me. I'm not drinking anyone else's beverage."
One benefit of Pepsi taking a bigger swing for the fences is that it could stand out from the comparatively staid messaging that's emerged around COVID-19 as marketers attempt to steer clear of any public backlash.
"It is a unique tack," O'Connell said of Pepsi. "Right or wrong, they took a point of view, and not all brands do that ... they'll get attention from doing that. That's job No. 1."
Pepsi's execution might generate some pushback, as the U.S. has troves of unvaccinated people at risk of catching and spreading COVID-19. Many activities in the ad theoretically should be reserved for vaccinated consumers based on guidance from public health officials. The spot doesn't make explicit reference to vaccines but encourages viewers to "follow national and local health guidelines." "The Mess We Miss" also covers its bases by imagining a better tomorrow that can be achieved by working together and closes on the note that COVID-19 "remains a health risk." Some people seeing the creative out of context still might take away the wrong message, according to O'Connell.
"It's forward-looking, but I think everybody reads it as the present," O'Connell said. "We'll see how consumers take it. For me, not knowing anything and seeing that spot in a bubble, I would say it's too much, too soon."
Coke, on the other hand, is angling for something more low-key with its "Open for Summer" packaging play and accompanying "Summer Tastes Better" campaign running across TV and radio. The soda giant deployed a similar motif in 2013, though the idea of opening up has taken on greater significance today.
Bottles feature a series of poems themed around seasonal activities that are starting to return with wider vaccine rollouts. TV ads show gatherings in sun-dappled settings such as backyard barbecues and include voiceover lines like, "The day the world stopped was the day we found where to go. From now on, we're not going to leave everything on our plates because we've learned to savor the moments that were always there. "
Not linking the "Open for Summer" packaging directly to the pandemic could serve a practical purpose, giving the effort longer legs. Coke's special packaging will be available at stores through Aug. 8.
"One of the things that [Coke] is going for is a campaign that will last all summer," O’Connell said. "Come late July, it's not going to be as relevant talking about coming out of quarantine anymore."
Coke's positioning ultimately does not create as striking an impression as Pepsi's but might resonate all the same while avoiding the minefield of public health discourse. And while Coke and Pepsi's tactics differ in key ways, they together help set the tone for the category at large as marketers look to thread the needle between messaging around the change in season and passing a key milestone in the fight against COVID-19.
"It's such an interesting moment in culture where everyone is really thinking about the same thing and talking about the same thing," O'Connell said. "The mood is all the same right now and it's so positive, whereas last year, the mood was perseverance … I think every brand is going to pick up on that."