For over 125 years, Pepsi has not only created ads, it has created culture, collaborating with musicians, artists, and icons to make moments that transcend marketing and contribute to the broader cultural conversation. So, we brought together a couple world-class mad men to have a conversation about Pepsi’s role as a maker, a cultural force, and a brand that has lived in the new, and the now, for 125 years.
Creative Director, Jeremy Hodges, founder of the Project Art Collective and Steven Simoncic, Partner/CCO at Morning Walk, sat down to talk about craft, creativity, and how a soda maker became a culture maker.
Jeremy Hodges: Did you even know that Pepsi has been around for 125 years?
Steven Simoncic: It’s really interesting, other brands that are north of 100 years sort of show and wear their age a bit. Even solid, successful, brands like LL Bean, Red Wing Boots, or Harley Davidson — all great brands in their own right, but they all, on some level, sort of lean on their legacy. Pepsi not so much. It is a brand that unapologetically looks toward the future. Pepsi is a young 125 in large part because it never allows itself to coast.
Hodges: I was surprised that they have been around for so long. It’s incredible how Pepsi has managed to stay relevant for 125 years. They’ve definitely mastered the art of staying cool and current. It’s impressive how they are able to be a part of the conversation in a cool way.
What cultural moments or icons come to mind when you think of Pepsi? How do you think these moments have shaped our society?
Simoncic: I think what Pepsi does so well is genuinely partner and play with culture makers. As a brand, it doesn’t seem to overthink what a potential collaboration or association could do or mean for the brand (positively or negatively). From David Bowie to Cardi B, Pepsi is not a brand that has said, this is the only kind of person that can represent us. Pepsi has been pretty open and inclusive from the very beginning – and not just through sanitized press releases or paper – thin corporate mission statements. Pepsi seeks out taste makers and make memorable work with them. That is, of course, capitalistic and opportunistic, but it’s also sort of brave and rare in corporate America.
Hodges: You’re right. Pepsi’s forward-thinking approach in the 1940s, by hiring Black professionals and embracing diversity, was a groundbreaking cultural moment in the cola war. There’s a book you have to read. It’s by Stephanie Capparell and called The Real Pepsi Challenge: The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Barrier in American Business, which goes into detail about this. It’s about the story of Walter Mack, who was president of Pepsi during his time with the company, and his decision to hire an all-Black sales team during an era of Jim Crow. It’s fascinating how they entered untapped markets by portraying Black families as part of the American Dream in their early advertisements. It was a precursor to the larger societal shifts we saw, including Jackie Robinson’s integration of major league baseball. Carrying this legacy into modern times, it’s clear how the concept of the “Pepsi Generation” emerged. It represents not just a demographic but a mindset that embraces inclusivity, innovation, and courage to challenge the status quo.
The achievements of individuals like Harvey Russell, who broke barriers by becoming the first Black American promoted to VP in a major corporation in 1962 and Indra Nooyi’s journey as an India-born woman who eventually became Pepsi’s CEO, shows their commitment to breaking traditional norms. Pepsi’s bold and progressive approach to advertising is truly commendable.
Simoncic: Totally agree. While it certainly skews young, the “Pepsi Generation” has always been very much a mindset.
Hodges: From music to sports, Pepsi has always been associated with celebrities or athletes. How do you think these partnerships have impacted pop culture?
Simoncic: There was a time when many artists and actors and musicians would consider selling a carbonated beverage to be a sellout. It has changed for lots of reasons, but I think Pepsi played some small role in helping change that dynamic. Part of the reason is that they treat actors and musicians like brands themselves versus hired guns. The relationship seems to be more about creative collaboration and partnership versus that of a paid spokesperson being told what to say and do. The model is pretty simple: everybody eats (creatively and financially) if it goes well. Pepsi sort of elevated brand endorsement to an art form – or at least to the level of pop culture acceptability – and helped make it okay for actors and musicians and brands to do cool things together and, yes, make money together.
Hodges: Think of Beyoncé’s halftime show at the Super Bowl; these events become ingrained in collective memory, shaping the way we perceive the brand. Their celebrity endorsers are not just famous faces but also cultural influencers. When these endorsements feel genuine and relevant, they come across as a mere transaction. Pepsi’s ability to connect with consumers on an emotional level, through these celebrity partnerships is how it seamlessly integrates itself into the fabric of people’s lives, making the brand not just a choice but a reflection of their identity and the zeitgeist.
Simoncic: Yes – when it really works, it can be a pretty awesome shared experience. It is like everyone coming together to say here we are, this is us, this now, this is who and what we care about now.
Hodges: Pepsi has often embraced diversity in its advertising. How do you think that approach has contributed to cultural acceptance?
Simoncic: I actually think Pepsi has been pretty switched on in this way for a while. In their brand world, cool is cool. As culture becomes more colorful, or less binary, or whatever it becomes, so does their brand world. Of course, Pepsi is a beverage company that first and foremost seeks to sell their beverages. As they should. But Pepsi has done an admirable job using their platform to embrace and include and broaden the conversation. And in my world, that is commendable. If you can sell your beverages and play some small role in encouraging a more open, more inclusive place, that’s a good thing. Also, I think one of Pepsi’s great decisions has been to regularly feature strong female protagonists – Nicki Minaj, to Shakira, to Britney Spears, Cindy Crawford, and Beyoncé, to name a few – doing powerful things.
Hodges: Representation matters! Pepsi’s commitment to featuring diverse individuals in their advertising not only promotes inclusivity but also challenges harmful stereotypes, fostering a more positive and accepting societal attitude. When people see their cultures celebrated and respected by a global brand like Pepsi, it cultivates a sense of pride and validation, reinforcing the idea that everyone’s story and background are valuable and worthy of recognition. This approach goes beyond just advertising; it shapes a more inclusive and tolerant world.
Simoncic: Agreed. The fact that the work they’ve done goes beyond advertising and marketing is awesome, and important.
Hodges: Considering Pepsi’s long history, how will it continue to influence our culture in the future?
Simoncic: This is tricky. It is significantly more difficult for any brand to make an outsized impact on our culture. We all seem to create our own micro-cultures.. But that said, my guess is that in the future, Pepsi will stick to its game plan of finding ways to be part of, and drive, the cultural conversation. That means continuing to build a healthy brand ecosystem with a thoughtful balance of purpose, experience, and performance. That combined with the ability these days to more personalize peoples’ brand interactions, should make Pepsi’s conversation with the next “generation next,” really exciting.
Hodges: Remember, the ‘Pepsi Generation’ was a 20-year marketing campaign targeting the younger generation, emphasizing youthfulness, vitality, and the spirit of the times. It highlighted the cultural shifts happening during those decades and portrayed Pepsi as a brand that understood youth culture. Pepsi can’t afford to lose that energy and mindset. They need to ensure they are authentically rooted in cultural movements, maintain their forward-thinking mindset, celebrate diversity, and continue to appeal to the youth. As marketers, we should recognize that if we capture the youth market, everyone else will follow the trends. Now, let’s stop and do a TikTok dance challenge!
Simoncic: Ha yes. I’ll fire up the Diva-Lite.