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209. Soda Design Wars.

The design press is all abuzz about the new Pepsi identity/packaging redesign. Brand New has covered it pretty well over the last week, but I can't help but add my commentary on this work, especially as it compares and contrasts to Coke's.

Both redesigns attempt to simplify the look of each brand - boiling it down to its essence. Turner Duckworth's work on Coke has been generally well received, and rightfully so. It's simple. Clean. and Pure. It is Coke and no other unnecessary ornamentation. The brand is carried out consistently on everything from theater popcorn bags to tractor-trailors in unmistakeable red and white graphcs, and it actually seems to have a personality, which I would describe as a little sophisticated but with a good sense of humor. You can (and should) watch the video about Coke on TD's site. The advertising that Wieden & Kennedy has done not only reinforces but most often focuses on the brand elements. Overall, a well-coordinated rebrand of an icon that was in dire need of help. But we've covered this already. Old news as it were.

Now a year (plus) later, Pepsi has been announcing new identity/packaging that they've been developing with The Arnell Group. Like I mentioned above, it's attempting to simplify the graphic language and focus a brand that has gone off track. (Sound familiar?) So, Pepsi starts releasing the new look - and pretty much the consensus is that it is awful. Go to most of the design blogs and you'll see a lot of vitriol about how it is no better than what an amateur or mediocre design student would produce. Some of this is justified. Some of it is unwarranted. And some of it is just silly. But here’s where they did well and where they went awry – in my humble opinion.

The Good.
It’s simple. Sure, it’s a bit of a trend to simplify things down and use avenir or futura or whatever sans du jour and pretty much nothing else – but when you are a big, iconic brand, it can work. It worked for Coke. And it could work for Pepsi just as well.

I like the type. I may be in the minority on this, but I think it is nice. Pepsi has used so many different type treatments and none of them were all that great so I don’t think they are losing anything by adopting this more modern approach. And I don’t care – I like the lowercase e a lot. I'll take the beatings.

Consistency. At least within the major Pepsi labels there is a design theme, which is nice. I don't think much of Coke's work is all that consistent once you begin to look at Diet, and Cherry and the other lines. At least the Diet and Max look cohesive.

The Release. Pepsi pre-released this video with sample packaging to a few influential design blogs - which was a nice gesture. It shows an appreciation for design and the critique thereof, as well as growing consideration for a more viral PR approach. Even if you hate the designs, you have to admit that this was a cool thing for them to do.

Peeking at the Gatorade snippet - there's a chance this redesign could be good. At least I hope so.

The Bad.

If you look closely on the Diet/Max packaging you'll notice a small monstrosity. They don't bother to spell out carbohydrates, sugar or calories. 0 cal, carb, sug. Yikes! It's like when a middle-aged white suburban guy tries to talk street, it just sounds stupid. (Not that I am an almost middle-aged white suburban guy or anything.)

Mt. Dew. Sierra Mist. Tropicana. All three of these brands have been turned into a complete mess. Ironically, I've seen the most positive comments on these three - which really surprises me. I think they are ugly, sloppy, amateurish and void of all the brand equity that they once held. It's just soda and orange juice - so it's not the end of the world, just a few bad design decisions. I know a farmer doesn't pluck the orange off the tree right before I walk into the store and buy Tropicana - but I don't mind the illusion, and getting rid of the straw in the orange was just not wise at all. I predict they'll come back to it eventually in lieu of the generic brand image they now have.

The logo. I believe this is the reason for most of the negativity, and it's not really even about the design. It's the rationale of designing each subbrand's red/white/blue globe as different smiles. What - are we in kindergarten or something? Even if the design was superbly executed the description of it alone would have resulted in more than a few - ughs. From AdAge and Brand New: "The white band in the middle of the logo will now loosely form a series of smiles. A "smile" will characterize brand Pepsi, while a "grin" is used for Diet Pepsi and a "laugh" is used for Pepsi Max." Ugh indeed.

Ultimately, I don't think Pepsi should have messed too much with their globe. I don't necessarily think it's the ultimate in identity design, but it is recognizable and the new logos don't do anything to help the designs. One reader on Brand New suggested the rebranding would have been more successful should the original logo been applied to the rest of the design - and I agree. Not a bad looking can, eh?

My conclusion:

It's not as bad as everyone wants it to be - at least the core Pepsi brand designs. They may have messed with the logo (You didn't see Coke do that btw,) but really the designs will look good on the shelf and still feel very much like Pepsi. That's a big deal. I believe having the courage to simplify things was even more difficult for Pepsi, because they've always felt that they had to scream a little louder than Coke - and their packaging has reflected that for decades. If they are now trying to out-whisper them - I'm all for it. Where I think this will fall short is in the macro communication efforts. I don't think the rest of the communication from the brand will have the sophistication or consistency that Wieden and TD have given to Coke. I could be wrong, but I just think it's going to be difficult for them to strike a note as pleasant as Coca-Cola. The subbrands, however, are a big step backward and I'm confident that time will prove me correct on this issue. I can't help be curious what would have happened if Turner Duckworth had been given the Pepsi project insted of Coke. How different would the work be? Would the commentary be different? Interesting to think about.

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Reader Comments (4)

I like your alternate version as depicted below. The uber-plain designers and new vertical type are one thing, but how can that new Pepsi logo be taken seriously when the old one was so balanced and familiar?

I say Pepsi should come out with an all-blue can that has no logo, and simply says "pepsi" in helvetica. That would be a one-up on Coke. (or in this case, a one-under)

The trouble is that Pepsi looks like a follower. They are saying, "hey, we have new packaging too." But are they going to convert Coke drinkers? Frankly, I don't think any steady soda drinkers are converting and packaging design stunts (limited design series, olympics promotions, etc.) will only general small spikes in sales from curious artistically-inclined shoppers.

The lesson, IMHO, is to make a better product and spend the next 5 or 10 years reinforcing the brand. If Coke wants to represent tradition, than Pepsi should represent youth, energy, and the next generation, as they traditionally have.
October 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPrescott Perez-Fox
Yep. Not sure their new design represents youth and energy either. But you're right - it should.

Excellent point.
October 29, 2008 | Registered Commenterjj
Excellent write-up, Smith. You've done a nice job of carving the good from the bad in Pepsi's newest "gamble" (as I'm calling it). I think their design of the globe is most erroneous...akin to making Mickey Mouse's ears into hexagons. A smile? Really, guys?
The only other thing I'd add is that ugly "i" in "Pepsi." I, too, don't mind a step towards modernism, but I do mind when that step is an ugly one.
Great post!
October 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJason Locke
Thanks fellow Jason. Yeah, I guess the 'i' is a little too happy for its own good.
October 30, 2008 | Registered Commenterjj

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