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By Amit Bapna, APAC editor-at-large

May 7, 2023 | 6 min read

Pepsi India's 'Rise up, baby!' campaign is on a mission to empower the nation by encouraging people to be themselves, but can it help the brand grow its share of the cola market?

Actress Samantha Ruth Prabhu is the face of the latest execution in Pepsi's 'Rise Up' campaign. Her ad, an empowerment call to arms for women to be themselves and ignore the judgement of others, is part of the brand's refreshed positioning.

The ad, the third in the series, which featured Bollywood actor Ranvir Singh, and South-Indian film star Yash, is part of a push to grow the brand's market share by engaging young audiences.

Saumya Rathor, category lead, Pepsi Cola, PepsiCo India, tells The Drum, “All three [stars] in their own ways represent this personality of the brand and the ‘rise up’ positioning, of being audaciously themselves."

Prabhu, a well-known actress in South Indian cinema and Bollywood is "the epitome of the independent, bold, and free-spirited modern Indian women, and therefore resonates with our ‘Rise up’ positioning," says Rathor.

The campaign has been conceptualized by Leo Burnett India and directed by popular Bollywood filmmaker Puneet Malhotra.

The campaign, which launched the first instalment in January, aims to engage with India's young people by portraying the spirit of this generation as they rise above societal norms.

“The ‘Rise up’ positioning is pivoted around some timeless truths that are relevant to all age groups and even more so for the youth today. For example, the world will constantly tell things - at all points of life and age groups, that include constant judgment, which the young generation is being constantly subjected to," shares Rathor.

“While this is an India-originated narrative, it’s very similar from a brand-DNA perspective with what the brand stands for globally." Rathor says Pepsi's brand DNA is about being irreverent, confident and effortless.

Rebooting India's Cola Wars

The campaign comes at a fascinating time for India's cola category. In March, Reliance Retail relaunched Campa Cola, a home-grown cola drink that was hugely popular in the 1970s and 1980s when Coca-Cola and Pepsi were not available in the Indian market.

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While the brand is not well known to young people, its nostalgic appeal to older audiences is strong, plus with a competitive pricing model, analysts predict it could steal share from Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

While the international heavyweights dominate the carbonated drinks market, when it comes to the cola segment, it is the local cola brand Thums Up (owned by The Coca-Cola Company), which leads with around 16% market share. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are between 8-9% market share of the overall carbonated soft drinks market in India.

“The per capita consumption in our country is very low, and the headroom to grow for all the players is immense. We are one of the largest youth markets, so of course, any growth by virtue of numbers will come from there," says Rathor.

Food adjacency is a big opportunity for the category, according to Rathor, who says partnerships such as the brand's existing deals with Dominos, Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell and PVR Cinema - among many others - play a key role in expanding the brand's reach.

The next wave of growth, for all the players in India, she says, is going to come from tier-2 and tier-3 cities, as well as rural India.

The zero sugar movement

The latest campaign promotes Pepsi Black, the brand's zero-sugar offering, which has already had a "phenomenal year", according to Rathor, with this year set to be " a landmark year for Pepsi Black". The zero-sugar product is helping to future-proof Pepsi's portfolio as the sugar conversation takes centre stage in India as consumers seek out healthier choices.

“Sugar and cold drinks will always be yoked together, but as an organisation, it’s all about giving a choice in the hand of the consumer with our offerings," says Rathor.

“We want to remind the consumers about the availability of the zero-sugar product Pepsi Black, and drive the mental availability of the brand.”

That's where the brand's use of celebrities comes into its element, says Rathore. "Strategy plays a very big role in our playbook, and then our celebrities fit that strategy. Celebs are the execution vectors to the larger strategy," she adds.

“Marketing is not about celebs - of course, celebs are the glitzy and glamorous part of the marketing - but marketing is genuinely hard work much beyond that."

Marketing needs to get the fun back

As per Rathor, “Marketers have to be bold, curious and stand up for something, which is not happening enough.”

She recalls her growing up years when watching ads was a big thing, and she used to wait to go through the ads because she loved watching ads. Now it seems (to her) that all marketers are sitting with a checklist.

We don’t know if we are doing it well enough, she says but is sure that the work being done on Pepsi is unmissable. “You may have polarized opinions on it but it is a conversation generator for sure, and that is a big win for me, as a marketer.”

How you market your brand, keeping it true to the category and yet ensuring that the creative work is unskippable, is the key challenge of today’s brand marketers.

“For a brand like Pepsi, the biggest challenge is to continue to stay relevant to the changing times from a consumer point of view and yet remain culture-forward.” Being so closely aligned with the youth consumer, the brand narrative has to be taken forward always in a culture-progressive manner – and that can be quite a task for any brand.

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