Best of 2021: Pepsi channels Ronald McDonald, Wendy and BK’s King in latest challenge to Coke

How Pepsi is fighting Coke's dominance at burger chains

Published On
Jun 01, 2021

Editor's Pick

Through New Year's, we will be counting down our picks for 2021's 30 best ads and creative marketing ideas.

At No. 23: Pepsi's witty effort to remind consumers that its soda brand also goes well with fast food.

Pepsi is eager to win over hamburger fans with a challenger campaign that plays off of mascots and packaging from the three biggest burger chains, which all serve Coca-Cola.

The move, which includes reimbursing diners for Pepsi purchases on Friday, is the latest piece of a broader “Better with Pepsi” effort. It shows Pepsi acknowledging that it isn’t sold at McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King, the top U.S. burger chains by sales.

“We need to address the elephant in the room,” says Todd Kaplan, VP of marketing, Pepsi. “None of them pour Pepsi.”

See the full list of 2021's Best Ads.

Nine of the top 10 burger chains in America serve Coke, which has a larger market share than Pepsi. The exception is Culver’s, which pours Pepsi. Even Billy Goat Tavern, the Chicago institution that inspired the 1978 “Saturday Night Live” skit about a restaurant that serves cheeseburgers and “no Coke, Pepsi!” actually serves Coke. 

The campaign uses imagery resembling Ronald McDonald, Wendy and BK’s King, without showing their faces. It also zooms in on sections of packaging from all three chains, strategically folded by an origami expert, to showcase sections that highlight red, white and blue curves reminiscent of Pepsi’s globe logo.

“We have a great heritage as a challenger brand,” says Kaplan, referring to efforts such as the Pepsi Challenge taste test that began in 1975.

Better with PepsiThis is also not the first time Pepsi has embraced its second-class status at restaraunts. In 2019, the brand ran a celebrity-filled Super Bowl ad that took on the phrase, "Is Pepsi OK?" The spot had fun with the phrase that servers often use when people try to order Coke at Pepsi-serving establishments. "Pepsi is more than OK," Steve Carell declares in the ad.

With the new campaign, Pepsi is offering to reimburse those who buy a hamburger from any restaurant and a Pepsi on May 28, National Hamburger Day, for the cost of the Pepsi. 

The push comes as more restaurants have begun to reopen dining rooms. During much of the coronavirus pandemic, people have been ordering for at-home consumption and therefore might not order a drink with their burgers and fries, instead opting for a beverage from home. That shift toward more at-home consumption does open up the idea of choice, says Kaplan. 

“We believe that Pepsi goes better with these burgers,” says Kaplan.

Earlier this month, Pepsi planted its name in the restaurant space by starting the online brand Pep’s Place, which offers dishes such as burgers paired with Pepsi beverages. 

The campaign will appear online, in limited out-of-home ads, and in media such as the New York Post’s Page Six. The origami bag imagery came from Alma and the mascot work is from VaynerMedia.

According to Pepsi, a blind taste test conducted on its behalf in August 2020 showed that among 233 adults who visit fast-food burger joints, about 60% said they preferred a McDonald’s Big Mac, Wendy’s Dave Single and Burger King’s Whopper Pepsi rather than Coke. The brand is also touting findings from a panel of taste experts assembled last year who agreed Pepsi enhances flavors in the burgers more than Coke does.

“The signature flavor and bright citrus blend of Pepsi cuts through the fat and gives a juicy hamburger a fresh, clean and delightful taste,” Kyle Shadix, PepsiCo’s corporate executive research chef for global beverages, said in a statement.