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Punita Lal

Executive Director, Marketing | 24 Aug 2005

“Frankly, it’s (the cola wars) not about attacking each other but just about keeping the cola industry alive. And consumers really wait for the battle. It’s not like they swing their choices, but they do enjoy the colas slug it out. And for sure, we haven’t become quiet, in fact, we are speaking more.”

An Economics graduate from St Stephens and a post-graduate from IIM Calcutta, Punita Lal opted for advertising to kickstart her career in the corporate world with Lintas. She then moved on to J Walter Thompson, India where she worked as Account Director for Pepsi. Little did she know at that point of time that she would one day shift to the client’s side to become Executive Director - Marketing, PepsiCo India.

From being an Account Director for Pepsi, Punita went on to becoming the Account Director for Unilever’s dental business before becoming the Vice-President and Unit Head, Mumbai, for the company. She then joined Coca-Cola in Hong Kong as its Brand Director for Greater China. She functioned as the company’s Deputy Regional Manager and Marketing Director for Hong Kong, Macau and Mongolia before shifting to her current position with PepsiCo India.

In conversation with Apeksha Gupta, Punita gives quite a few insights into Pepsi, Indian youth’s beloved cola brand.

Q. Introduce Pepsi…

Pepsi is clearly the cola choice of the youth. You say cola and it is Pepsi that is the top of mind recall. Pepsi has been lucky, but we have also worked hard to get there. It has always spoken to the youth consistently, singlemindedly and innovatively, and that is a position we have never vacated. It is not easy, it keeps us on our toes constantly to talk to the youth in a new way every time, but we have done this whole-heartedly and that’s the DNA of this brand.

Q. How does Pepsi, a single cola brand, battle its space in a triple cola-brand market?

There is no battle at all. We are clearly the largest. Pepsi was the one that defined the cola market in India, even though it wasn’t the first cola brand here. Pepsi raised the salience of colas here and is called the ‘Definitive Cola’ brand. While yes, ThumsUp is a significant cola brand, but that is true only for specific pockets of the country. Pepsi is a pan national brand.

Q. Pepsi stands for irreverence globally. Do we see the irreverence diluting in India in any way?

We have had stages where we have been more irreverent and stages when we have been less irreverent. As a brand grows and acquires stature, there are other facets of the brand that you need to communicate. However, the unique quality of the brand is the ability to laugh at itself. Even if you take the ‘Oye Bubbly’ campaign – even though it has been successful, at the end of the day we laugh when we say it is nothing but a bubbly liquid that is entrancing you, being magical to you, capturing you. There is a bit of an underplay of us laughing at ourselves, but the youth of today really like and appreciate this. Just the ‘Don’t take me too seriously’ attitude is what ticks the young consumers and we laugh with the young.

Q. What was the intent behind ‘Oye Bubbly’? Was it an answer to ‘Thanda matlab…’?

Be it ‘Yeh dil maange more’, ‘Yehi hai right choice baby’, ‘Yeh pyaas hai badi’ or now ‘Oye Bubbly’, the intent is to make these youth slogans. The idea is to look for catch phrases that the youth would catch on to and then make it part of their lives. Pepsi has had so many lines that have become consumer currency; Bubbly was also intended to be likewise.

Q. You are running the Beckham international ad parallelly. What are you hoping to achieve by this?

Well, it’s different ads talking to different audiences. The international campaign is not pan India. It runs on niche channels where the skew of your audiences is more SEC A1+. So when these guys see the ad, they relate to it more. Not that they don’t relate to Bubbly, but they identify more since these guys are the ones who would know who David Beckham is. It is really trying to stratify the consumer and saying “Different strokes for different folks”.

Q. Are the Cola Wars over?

I hope not! Frankly, it’s not about attacking each other but just about keeping the cola industry alive. And consumers really wait for the battle. It’s not like they swing their choices, but they do enjoy the colas slug it out. And for sure, we haven’t become quiet, in fact, we are speaking more.

Q. Before ‘Toss ka Boss’, there was a slight lull in Pepsi’s communication. What would you attribute this to?

There were a couple of things in the industry that this can be attributed to. The pesticide issue and the Rs 5 strategy took away the attention from the core communication strategy that the brand has been built around. So you really had to wait for the effect of these to die down because then, if Rs 5 was the story, then it was only Rs 5 that was the story. There were just too many of mixed messages going around at that point of time and both consumers and us had to wait for that to wear out.

Q. With Bubbly, has the jingle magic been brought back consciously?

Indian consumers love music and they are very music oriented. It was very intentional to come up with a hit jingle, but we also hit lucky. We wanted a rocking track and we got it. That is why we have come up with the second Bubbly that takes the Oye Bubbly route, but into a difference space. From a cool grind, we have taken it to a hip clubby setting with Kareena leading it.

Q. So how did the summers fare for Pepsi this year?

There were two big changes that we saw prior to summers. One was the pesticide issue, which led to consumption being affected in a big way and perceptions marred to a large extent. Also, the Rs 5 strategy meant that colas were much more affordable and so one played against the other in a sense. There was a lot of balancing out that needed to be done, and with that in mind, we didn’t expect to have the brisk levels that we did with the Rs 5 strategy. However, what was really positive was that the value turnover we achieved this year was significantly up. So net out, we are positive.

Q. Your take on in-out strategies for your brands...

Today’s consumer is a flirtatious consumer. It is looking for an increasing level of fun and variety. If you keep things around for too long, then the consumer gets jaded. He has tried it, liked it but don’t keep whipping it around is the mind set today. Also, sometimes this is just to check what the consumer response would be like; sort of a test market at times, so that we know what can be made permanent in the longer run. The clear lime drink category is all about refreshment and 7Up Ice, the in-out variant, was to tell the consumer that we constantly bring him new exciting stuff. Earlier, we had Pepsi Blue, which was event based and we had taken it out after that. We had the Mirinda Batberry to coincide with the release of the latest Batman movie. This also received tremendous response.

Q. While summers are hectic for cola companies, what are the off-seasons like?

India is a highly seasonal market. We do manage to get our fair amount of volumes, almost 60 per cent, during the peak four months. However, our attempt every time is to dampen seasonality. For example, we had the ‘Khufiya’ promotion in February, this year, when it still quite cold in North India. The idea was to boost consumption and kickstart into the season as summers set in. Similarly, we might look at doing a promotion during September-October, which is again off-season, but buzzing with festivals.

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