A Marketer's Homage to the Soda Can

PepsiCo recently announced that it will add an additional $500 million to $600 million to its roughly $2 billion advertising budget to support its soda brands in 2012, in an attempt to catch up with the heavy spending (and sales gains) of archrival Coca-Cola. Meanwhile, Dr Pepper Snapple Group recently upped its $445 million ad budget by $25 million to $30 million, having gained market share by raising spending by double digits during the recession. If there’s one thing Big Soda understands, it’s that advertising works.

Brands such as Coke, Pepsi, and Dr Pepper gain attention for big-budget television spots in high-profile programming such as NFL games and the Oscars, and there have been many famous commercials through the years, from Mean Joe Greene’s star turn for Coke to Cindy Crawford’s head-turning spot for Pepsi. But no matter how big a hit they score with their ads, nothing is more important to the marketers at Coke, Pepsi, 7-UP, Mountain Dew, and every other soda maker as their packaging.

Think about it. PepsiCo benefits from 1 billion packaging impressions (jargon for exposure to marketing messages) per day—that’s how many snacks and beverages the company sells around the world. Coca-Cola’s numbers are even more impressive, serving 1.7 billion bottles, cups, or cans of The Real Thing per day. Even if each impression is worth as little as a penny, that’s a marketing value in the tens of millions of dollars. Every. Single. Day.

To reap those benefits, however, each brands’ packaging has to compete at the grocery shelf (or vending machine) with dozens of others, all contending for the attention of shoppers. A soda can is the last opportunity a company has to persuade shoppers to tip its brand into their shopping carts. And it’s the single most frequent exposure consumers have to the brand, not only at the supermarket but in their refrigerators, at their desks, and on their countertops.

Inversely proportional to its importance in the marketing mix, a soda can offers precious little real estate for branding messages. But after more than 100 years of tinkering, the cola giants have it down (mostly) to a science. The ways they make the most of their packaging offer lessons for any business.

First and foremost, they understand that form is as vital as function. What a soda can delivers—the product inside as well as the message outside—is of no value if it first doesn’t capture attention. That’s why you see bold colors and sweeping graphics in the soft drink aisle. A common mistake many advertisers make is putting their rational messaging ahead of emotional appeal. The old saying that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care has a marketing corollary; consumers won’t pay attention to what you say unless you say it in an attractive or entertaining way.

Second, consistency is king. While logos and imagery must keep up with the times (Pepsi refreshed its look once a decade through the 1970s, twice in the 1990s, and again in 2008), the soda makers don’t want anything to distract you from spotting their brand on a crowded shelf. Fans of Mountain Dew or Sprite can picture the cans in their mind, and if they can’t find them easily at retail outlets, it could help competing brands. Coke tripped itself up late last year when it rolled out a snow-white can for the holidays, as some people confused it with Diet Coke and others swore the product inside tasted differently. There’s nothing wrong with tweaking your branding for a special occasion, but attention-getting efforts can sometimes backfire (see “The Case for Brand Accretion”).

Third, a soda can is easy. Easy to stack. Easy to carry. Easy to open. Easy to buy in quantity. It wasn’t always that way—cans used to be much heavier and less pliable, and they lacked the tapers at the top and bottom that make them stackable and storable. Some of us can remember slicing our fingers with a pop top—or our toes with a pop top someone discarded on the beach. The soda kings learned that the easier they made their products to enjoy, the more often we would enjoy them. That’s a lesson with implications for any business.

Fourth, cans are informative without being intrusive. Much of the information on a soda can is there because it has to be—content weight, bar code, ingredients, calorie count, copyright notice, etc. But the soft drink makers found a way to provide information without overcompromising aesthetics. And they don’t forget to extend an invitation—not just to enjoy the contents but also to engage with the brand, through a consumer information number, a website, and often an encouragement to recycle. Every company has many things it wants to share with its customers, but there is hierarchy and order to effective brand communications.

Finally, a soda can—like any great marketing effort—is an extension of the brand itself. Coke considers its packaging “the most enduring symbol of our brand promise,” according to the soda maker’s vice president for global connections, Ivan Pollard. One of my colleagues says she hates drinking out of cans that overdo it with movie promotions or theme park passes. To her, a third-party promotion on a can of her beloved soft drink is like a commercial at a movie theater—not what she signed up for.

Aesthetic appeal, consistency, accessibility, information, invitation—who knew a humble can could do so much? A century ago it couldn’t, but through years of trial and error, soft drink marketers have learned and lassoed the branding power of packaging. Very few advertisers can afford the production values and talent costs of the big soda makers’ television commercials. But each of us can learn and apply the lessons of the humble can.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.