Pepsi is putting images of two dead music icons on its cans this summer, reaching back once again to its pop culture glory days in an effort to boost sagging sales. Michael Jackson and Ray Charles will front limited-edition packaging along with Britney Spears, who isn't exactly in her prime (although to be fair, her recently concluded four-year Las Vegas residency concert was considered a major hit).
The cans continue the retro-heavy "Pepsi Generations" campaign that Pepsi kicked off earlier this year with a Super Bowl ad that included quick glimpses of classic Pepsi ads starring Spears and Jackson. A follow-up ad for Diet Pepsi included shots of Charles that harkened back to a 1990s-era spot when he sang "You got the right one baby" for the brand.
But putting the singers on cans ups the ante, while raising questions about much resonance the one-time mega stars have with younger consumers today.
"The first thing I thought was, 'Oh, they must be going for the older folks'—because the younger kids are drinking a lot less soda these days," says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco who studies millennial consumers.
But on the plus-side for Pepsi, "young people today kind of like the retro-chic stuff. Michael is iconic, Ray is iconic. And I guess by rubbing shoulders with them Pepsi becomes a little bit more iconic," she adds. "It is calling out some of [Pepsi's] shining moments, I suppose, and elevating the stature of the brand though association. But I don't think that's going to be enough."
The packaging comes as PepsiCo pours more marketing money into its struggling soda business in an attempt to keep pace with Coke. Sales volume of all Pepsi varieties fell 4.5 percent last year, according to Beverage Digest. Coke performed better, but still fell by 2 percent. Total sales volume of all soda brands fell for the 13th consecutive year, according to Beverage Digest.
Jackson, who died in 2009, began working for Pepsi in 1984 as part of the "New Generation" campaign when his hair famously caught on fire during one commercial shoot. The new cans are not Pepsi's first posthumous marketing play with the one-time King of Pop. In 2012, the brand put Jackson in an ad to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his "Bad" album. The campaign, part of a deal with Jackson's estate, included 16 oz. cans featuring the singer.
PepsiCo declined to comment on the nature the deal for the new cans. In a press release, Stacy Taffet, senior driector of marketing for the Pepsi trademark in North America, said the ongoing "Pepsi Generations" campaign targets consumers of "every generation," adding that "music has always been at the heart of it."
Charles, who died in 2004, was closely associated with Pepsi in the early 1990s. The song "You've got the right one baby, uh-huh!" was featured in a series of ads including a 1991 Super Bowl spot. Spears' work for Pepsi began with a "Joy of Pepsi" ad in 2001. That was followed by a 2002 ad called "Now and Then" that showed her reenacting old Pepsi ads.
This summer Pepsi is sponsoring her "Piece of Me" tour that follows her four-year Las Vegas concert residency, "Britney: Piece Of Me," which ended at the end of last year after generating more than $130 million in ticket sales, according to Billboard.
As part of its summer campaign, Pepsi will give away tickets to Spears' tour shows as well as for other concerts including Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza and the MTV Video Music Awards. The brand in a press release today also teased a forthcoming ad that will feature "one of today's top music superstars." A spokeswoman declined to elaborate on the ad.