Doritos-Flavored Mountain Dew and the Genius of PepsiCo’s Gross-Out Marketing

When word got out last week that PepsiCo was testing Doritos-flavored Mountain Dew, the Internet had a brief but intense freakout—online hysteria erupting as if from a shaken bottle of soda—providing Mountain Dew with a surge in online buzz. In the past week more than 10,000 tweets have mentioned the Doritos-flavored soft drink specifically, according to analytics firm Topsy.

“Dewitos,” as the product is called, “has been sitting in the vault for years, and we wanted to give students a chance to try it as part of a fun sampling program on college campuses,” according to a Mountain Dew spokesman. “We knew students would be intrigued but never imagined it would take on a life of its own the way it has.”

In contrast with some of their competitors, PepsiCo brands have had no reservations about tweaking signature flavors, often to gross effect. The company’s Lay’s division recently introduced cappuccino-flavored potato chips as part of its “Do Us A Flavor” campaign, which invited consumers to submit and vote on new chip flavors. The cappuccino chips may have tasted “like they fell into a K-Cup,” but the bizarre flavor generated more than 25,000 mentions on outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, according to Infegy, a company that analyzes social media. Competing flavor wasabi ginger generated far less chatter until it was announced as the competition winner last month, suggesting that something disgusting captures the imagination in a way that something merely weird or novel does not.

Courtesy Infegy

This is the point of over-the-top food, be it weird soda flavors or waffles stuffed with bacon and cheddar, as at IHOP. “These promotions are tailor-made for online virality, which the chains hope will entice more customers to gorge themselves,” my colleague Claire Suddath wrote. Pepsi’s genius is that, unlike IHOP or Yum! Brands’ Taco Bell (Spicy Chicken Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos) and Pizza Hut (cheeseburger-crust pizza), it doesn’t need to sell its novelty flavors to make a point. Rather, it managed to generate all of its Dewitos buzz with a giveaway.
The Doritos flavor was being tested at colleges and universities with a few other new versions of Mountain Dew: habanero mango, rainbow sherbet, and lemonade with ginger. Yet only the soda flavored like liquid tortilla chips provoked such a quick, strong reaction—and some curiosity:

While the feedback wasn’t all positive, Mountain Dew was able to reach social media-using millennials, a demographic it actively courts. The taste test coincides with a promotion PepsiCo is running with Call of Duty, in which players of the video game earn rewards by buying Mountain Dew or Doritos. There’s a lot of overlap among the products: “In the U.S., over 60 percent of Mountain Dew households buy Doritos,” PepsiCo Chief Executive Officer Indra Nooyi said on an earnings call in October.
A Mountain Dew spokesman says making a Doritos-flavored soda was not a PR stunt. According to an e-mailed statement: “We are always testing out new flavors of Mountain Dew, and giving our fans a voice in helping decide on the next new product has always been important to us.”

Maybe so, but it’s hard to imagine Pepsi has any serious plans to market the so-called Dewito. The Redditor who spread the word about the new soda damned it with faint praise: “It honestly wasn’t that disgusting.”

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