Pepsi is set to launch an advertising campaign that reimagines the hit musical "Grease" with the help of rising musician Doja Cat. The effort, developed with agency VaynerMedia, promotes two limited-edition flavors hitting retail shelves on Sept. 20 that build on a spate of recent flavor experiments and conjure associations with soda shops of the '50s and '60s.
With the concept, the soft drink marketer is trying to bridge new and old schools of pop culture. It noticed nostalgia as a growing theme in media, manifested in streaming shows like "Cobra Kai," a sequel to the original "Karate Kid" franchise, and the resurgence of childhood hobbies like card-collecting. Executives believe those trends are indicative of how consumers are increasingly seeking outlets that help them unplug and turn back time as society sits at an uncertain point of the pandemic.
"On a psychological level, when people are in times of stress or uncertainty, they look for comfort," said Todd Kaplan, Pepsi's vice president of marketing. "Indulgence is one way and nostalgia — simpler times — is another way. That's where these trends have really bubbled to the top."
A TV spot premiering around the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) Sunday features a modernized take on "Grease" showstopper "You're the One That I Want." Choreographed by Sean Bankhead and directed by Hannah Lux Davis, the video is set in familiar locations, including Rydell High and a soda shop similar to the Frosty Palace restaurant where Pepsi appeared in the 1978 film adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Rather than chasing a man, Doja Cat is on the hunt for new Pepsi-Cola Soda Shop flavors, flipping an ending that even fans of the musical have taken issue with. The original stage show celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, adding a timely component to the campaign.
Harkening back to hangouts like the Frosty Palace also serves as the inspiration for two new flavors under the Pepsi-Cola Soda Shop label: black cherry and cream soda. The variants, which are available while supplies last and come in cans and 20-ounce bottles, are meant to establish a connection to decades past with packaging and shopper marketing components evoking the jukebox era.
"The way we're kind of talking about it is that these are a modern take on a classic," Kaplan said.
Balancing new and old
While many signifiers of the Pepsi-Cola Soda Shop campaign are distinctly vintage, Pepsi is adding modern touches in partnering with Doja Cat. The VMA host, who is nominated for five awards and will also perform at the MTV show, climbed the charts partially thanks to her social media savvy. Several of her songs, like "Say So" and "Get Into It (Yuh)," have become viral sounds on TikTok, a channel on which Pepsi plans to activate with its broader media plan for Pepsi-Cola Soda Shop.
Pepsi has a history of enlisting pop artists to put spins on old classics, including Elton John with Aretha Franklin's "Respect"; Beyonce, Pink and Britney Spears with "We Will Rock You"; and most recently, Missy Elliott and H.E.R.'s take on "Paint it Black" at the 2020 Super Bowl. The idea for teaming with Doja Cat predated her landing the VMA hosting gig, per Kaplan.
"The VMAs actually came after we decided to partner with her," Kaplan said. "It just speaks to how relevant she is today in having her moment."
After debuting the main spot at the awards show Sunday, the marketer will share different cuts of the ad, including ones more focused on the flavor profile of the beverages. Influencer marketing, trialing and in-store sampling will factor into the push as well, per Kaplan.
"We'll have media flighting for the coming weeks as the product's out in market," Kaplan said. "There's a whole range of marketing support."
Pepsi has continued to experiment with flavor offerings during the pandemic. In March, it introduced Pepsi Mango, the first permanent addition to its portfolio in five years. Elsewhere, the brand has focused on what Kaplan described as culture drops: products tied to specific events, like a Pepsi x Peeps collaboration released around Easter. Pepsi-Cola Soda Shop tries to find a happy medium between the two approaches.
"This fits squarely in the middle," Kaplan said. "It's scaled to the point where it will really sell well at retail ... but also it will be available for a limited time, which will create some urgency."