Pepsi's New '1893' Soda Further Blurs Booze, Soda Marketing

Debut Spot Starts a Sommelier Amid a Backdrop of Wine Barrels

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The line between soda and booze marketing is getting about as blurry as a Sunday morning hangover. Witness the debut ad for Pepsi's new 1893 premium soda brand, which uses a sommelier character who peddles the beverage like a fine whiskey or wine.

The ad is meant to be humorous. But it underscores a serious marketing strategy by PepsiCo, which is trying tap into the mixology trend. The cola is made from kola nut extract, "real sugar" and sparkling water, with a touch of "aromatic bitters." A ginger cola version includes "real ginger." If it sounds like something that would go well with whiskey, that is kind of the point.

Soda and booze have long been mixed, of course, but brands have not always talked about it openly, or used alcohol imagery in ads.

"We were inspired by the mixology craze," said Chad Stubbs, VP of marketing for the Pepsi trademark. "We absolutely see this as a perfect standalone beverage or a perfect complement to cocktails."

The launch, which was officially announced last week, comes as beer marketers borrow from the soda playbook with a range of new pop-like flavored hard sodas.

Examples include MillerCoors' Henry's Hard Soda brand, which comes in ginger ale and orange flavors made with cane sugar and have 4.2% alcohol by volume. Anheuser-Busch InBev keeps adding flavors to its new Best Damn Brewing Co. hard soda brand, including a recently launched cherry cola flavor. Brewers are even starting to capitalize on the sparkling water craze. Boston Beer Co. -- which makes Sam Adams -- this week launched a brand called Truly Spiked & Sparkling that it touts as "the lowest-calorie and lowest-carb spiked sparkling water available." Flavors include Colima Lime and Grapefruit and Pomelo.

All of the offerings aim to quench the growing thirst for variety by today's consumers, especially millennials.

Pepsi is "really interested in the millennial culture of cocktails and the whole culture around mixology now," said Beverage-Digest Editor Duane Stanford. He cited a project called "Fizz" that is being tested by PepsiCo's foodservice team for possible use in restaurants, according to a report late last year in Beverage-Digest. On its website, PepsiCo describes Fizz as a "360 degree immersive experience including actual bubbles, spinning spheres, flavor scent tubes, a DJ and hands-on fizzology experiments." Pepsi experimented with the concept last year at the World Maker Faire event in New York.

Beverage-Digest reported one concoction, called the "Throwback," combines Sierra Mist, a grape-strawberry flavor shot, watermelon foam, green apple cotton candy and Pop Rocks.

While the Fizz drinks are nonalcoholic, Pepsi is getting into the bar business through a separate venture called the Kola House. The first venue is set to open soon in New York City's Meatpacking District. It will be home to resident cocktail curator Alex Ott, who will develop cocktails and elixirs for the establishment, which is described as a kola bar, restaurant, lounge and event space with themes honoring the kola nut.

With 1893, Pepsi wants to tap into the rising interest in food culture that is often perpetuated in social media, Mr. Stubbs said. "We knew there was a space to introduce a cola that is part of this taste journey that consumers are wanting to go on," he said. He hinted that the brand could be used to launch flavors beyond cola and ginger.

The "1893" moniker is a reference to the birth year of a predecessor to Pepsi-Cola known as "Brad's Drink" that was created by Pepsi-Cola founder Caleb Bradham.

1893 Pepsi.
1893 Pepsi. Credit: PepsiCo

The brand will be positioned as "mainstream premium." It is available nationally and packaged in sleek bronze and black cans. The suggested retail price for one 12-ounce can is $1.79. For that same price, a consumer could get a 20-ounce regular Pepsi. But 1893 is still cheaper than Pepsi's Caleb's Kola, which goes for $1.99 per 10-ounce bottle. Caleb's, which was introduced in 2014, is made from kola nuts, cane sugar, spices and a hint of citrus. Pepsi considers it a "craft soda" and distribution is regional.

The new brand is officially called "1893 from the makers of Pepsi-Cola." The first TV ad (above) stars actor Jeff Galfer in the role of a sommelier. He swirls and smells the soda amid a backdrop of wooden barrels, before he loses his couth and chugs a couple glasses of the stuff. A voiceover describes the beverage as "boldly blended cola."

The agency is Pitch, which beat out other Pepsi roster agencies for the launch ad, Mr. Stubbs said. He declined to reveal details around the media investment, but said the spot would run during prime time, on cable and in late night. It will also get significant digital backing, he said.