Modern Marketing Brand Strategy Pepsi

Pepsi-infused pepperoni pizza is now a real thing

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By Kendra Clark | Senior Reporter

May 18, 2022 | 9 min read

Pepsi’s chief marketer opens up about his vision to take the soft drink brand to the next level – with everything from cola-infused pepperoni to a diversified, tech-focused marketing strategy.

Pizza with Pepsi logo

Pepperoni slices shouldn’t just go with a Pepsi – they should taste like Pepsi, the brand says / Pepsi

Pepsi today unveiled its latest cheeky product activation: cola-infused pepperoni pizza.

The move is an extension of the brand’s ‘Better With Pepsi’ messaging platform – which gained attention last year with the clever campaign that snuck the brand’s iconic circular logo on to fast food takeout bags, suggesting that burgers pair best with Pepsi.

Now, the soda purveyor says it’s not just burgers, but another of America’s favorite meals – pizza – that is best served with a cool, refreshing Pepsi. In fact, the brand claims that’s why, among national pizza chains Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, Papa John’s, Marco’s Pizza, Papa Murphy’s and Hungry Howie’s Pizza, 72% currently serve Pepsi, per a recent survey.

“The reason why a lot of [pizza shops] pour Pepsi is because they know there’s some science that backs [the pairing,]” says Pepsi chief marketing officer Todd Kaplan. “The bite of acidity that comes from the Pepsi really complements the sauce and the cheese ... and the Italian spices are complemented by the citrusy pop that’s unique to a Pepsi.” Ultimately, he says, the brand figured that a pepperoni pizza would be the best kind of slice to pair with a Pepsi, thanks to the additional Italian spices and savory umami that comes with the meat.

Kaplan notes that pepperoni was first created by Italian-Americans at the turn of the century in lower Manhattan – “to enhance the taste of pizza ... to bring out the cheese and sauce flavors.” And since it’s been shown that consumers think Pepsi enhances the flavor of pizza, the brand got thinking. “What would happen if we brought these two things together?” says Kaplan.

So the brand tasked the Culinary Institute of America Consulting – a business arm of the renowned cooking school – to create a new, citrusy, cola-y spin on the country’s favorite pizza topping. The one-of-a-kind recipe uses 100% pork meat infused with Pepsi Zero Sugar, pairing Italian herbs with Pepsi’s citrus and caramel notes. The sausage is smoked for hours and finished with an additional Pepsi glaze. Finally, the individual pepperoni slices are branded with a crispy Pepsi logo and layered atop a pizza. “It is absolutely delicious,” Kaplan says.

Pepsi-infused pepperoni pizza

The brand will be handing out free slices of its limited-edition Pepsi-Roni Pizza at Made in New York Pizza West Village in New York on Friday May 20 in honor of National Pizza Party Day. For fans outside of Manhattan, the brand is promising to comp Pepsi purchases up to $3 if purchased with a pizza at a number of locations around the country. Additionally, it’s offering an exclusive $5 discount on DoorDash for any pizza orders of $15 or more that also include a Pepsi.

Pepsi has invested major dollars in both long-term product innovation and limited-edition flavor experiments and crossover partnerships in recent years. In March, the soda giant rolled out a version of its classic cola infused with nitrogen for a smoother, creamier finish; the product is now available in major markets everywhere. In the same month, the brand teamed up with IHOP to debut a special maple syrup-flavored beverage available for a limited time and only for select sweepstakes winners.

Kaplan says that the brand is increasingly focused on one-off activations and product releases such as Pepsi Maple Syrup Soda and the new Pepsi-Roni Pizza, which he equates to ‘drop’ culture in the sneaker and fashion industries. “Whether it’s a limited product drop or pushing the limits with culinary things or real innovations that are sold at retail, we’re always looking to find new ways for consumers to enjoy our products and we want to make sure we’re connecting with consumers in the right way.”

Kaplan hints that the fun is only getting started when it comes to Pepsi food mash-ups and campaigns. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you see us continue to pop up with new categories and new ways to bring what we call the ‘situational salience’ of our brand to life with food pairings.”

From the sounds of it, the possibilities could be endless – when asked about his favorite unexpected culinary pairing, he says: “Chinese food goes well with Pepsi. The carbonation really breaks down the grease.”

The creativity would appear to be paying off; Kaplan says that in the last three and a half years the team has “turned around the ship” for the brand. “For decades before, the brand was in decline,” he says. “We’ve now had 15 consecutive quarters of sales growth, which has been great.” And it’s not just the soda brand that’s reaping the rewards – parent company PepsiCo’s latest financial report, for the fiscal quarter ending April 26, saw revenues surpass analysts’ estimates, despite the hit sustained from ceasing operations in Russia in light of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Beyond the innovation happening at the brand level, the recent growth of the category at large almost certainly plays a role. The latest data from Beverage Digest indicates that the carbonated soft drinks category saw its first sales volume gain in 17 years.

“The category has been growing – a lot of it [has to do with] the pandemic and the idea of indulgence and nostalgia and the ... comfort that people are seeking with products,” says Kaplan. “Soda and specifically cola – and [the role it] plays – is a nice staple in people’s lives. It serves a role within providing these little moments of enjoyment and indulgence. That, I think, is here to stay.”

Kaplan says the brand is using this insight to inform its approach. An obvious example of Pepsi tapping into consumer demand for nostalgic experiences came to life last year when it tapped Doja Cat to remake the Grease classic You’re The One That I Want to promote its line of soda shop-inspired sips. “We’ve been excited to take that [consumer demand] and innovate new ways within that to continue to drive more growth for our brand and for our fans,” Kaplan says.

And while Pepsi’s messaging may be nostalgic, its marketing strategy is futuristic. “It’s one of the most exciting and one of the most difficult times to be a marketer, because of just how fast the world is changing around us.” He sees these changes playing out in cultural movements, in where consumers are spending their time, the emergence of new technologies and the increasing fragmentation of the media ecosystem. “A lot of the historical models of media buying and how agencies are briefed and do work is still based on that old-school mentality.”

And he’s hyper-focused on breaking Pepsi out of these molds to ensure it’s a brand for the future. “What I’ve been spending a lot of time on with my team is really figuring out how we build and create experiences where people can seek out our brand – like the pepperoni and maple syrup [product drops] and like creating our own content, whether it’s a show like Becoming a Popstar on MTV that we’ve come up with. We want to build things that [enable us to] engage with fans in a different way, rather than just throwing ads in front of them, which is a simplified way of talking about how marketing used to be done.”

As part of this effort, Kaplan is focused on diversifying Pepsi’s marketing strategy (and he’s all-in on web3). “Most people don’t experience brands through paid media only – they have earned media, social media ... they watch content, they participate in grassroots experiences, things like that. That’s kind of where I’m seeing it all going. And I’ve been coaching my team to drive a lot of creativity around that area.”

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