How Pepsi Stomped Coke By Firing Their Translators

Tapping into a local culture is the key to unleashing a huge sales increase.

Pic by Zef Art. Rights purchased via Adobe Images

Pepsi has long been to Coke what Ryan Lochte has been to Michael Phelps: less popular and always getting second place.

This was the case in The Distinct Society (Quebec) where Pepsi trailed Coke 4:1 for decades, but later pulled off one of the biggest upsets in marketing history.

To understand the imminent, massive brand overthrow, we must first remember that Quebec is markedly different than the rest of Canada. It has different politics, culture, food, entertainment, language, all while sharing a Canadian nationality.

Yet many Quebecois will only identify as Canadian when there is an international hockey game.

Why? Because they were conquered by the Brits (Quebec was formerly New France). They spent a good two hundred years living as second class citizens in Canada.

These deep cultural tensions occasionally lead to major upheavals. And during one such upheaval, Pepsi broke Coke’s aura of invincibility.

Why a Conventional Soda Advertising Strategy Faltered

The standard advertising procedure in Canada was to film in English. Then, you have a translator voice-over dialogue for French-speaking audiences. In turn, you get that funky kung-fu dubbing effect with your actors.

This worked fine and was the modus operandi until 1984 when Pepsi abruptly did away with their translation operation. It wasn’t an arbitrary decision and was informed by two driving events.

First, they’d watched their New Generation campaign with Michael Jackson, elevate sales around the world but do virtually nothing for them in Quebec. The locals were flatly unimpressed with Jackson’s hooting moonwalks and oversized sunglasses.

Second, they were in the wake of a massive political movement. A Quebecian nationalist group, Parti Québécois (PQ), had gained prominence and in 1980, they’d initiated the first of two referendums, designed to secede from Canada as their own nation.

PepsiCo knew Quebec was very sensitive and protective of their culture. They also knew they’d felt ignored by big brands.

So instead of having translators dub their Quebec commercials, they localized their strategy. They hired a distinct cast of Quebec actors, who played characters specific to Quebecian culture.

Their jokes wouldn’t make sense to most outsiders (even after translation) but they were a smash hit inside the province.

Additionally, while Coke was announcing to everyone, “Around the world, it’s Coke.”

Pepsi then dubbed their Quebec campaign, “Here, it’s Pepsi.” While featuring their wildly popular comedian, Claude Meunier.

He played several characters, including a hockey player who’d been hit in the head by too many pucks (the only premise I understood/related to).

Pic via YouTube

The key was that Pepsi spent the extra money to target Quebec as its own unique country, rather than lumping them into a bucket as Canadian.

And, quite unexpectedly, by featuring banal aspects of everyday life in their Quebec, Pepsi consolidated Quebecois culture around their brand. This phenomenon has since been the subject of many studies in the social sciences.

Conclusion: Lasting Results Are Still Hitting the Bottom Line

The impact was immediate and overwhelming. Pepsi surged past Coke, going from only a fraction of their sales to having a 12% advantage of their market share, which later grew to 20% in the 1990s.

Today Pepsi is by far the most dominant soda in Quebec, with coke having only a small minority of the market.

You’ll see Pepsi signs, factories, and sponsorships embedded in Quebec culture. It’s symbolic of their contrarian view of their Canadian heritage.

Home to several hockey teams over the years. Source: Wikipedia pic

Pepsi’s entrance strategy became a template for subsequent brands that already wasted huge dollars trying to break into this standoffish market.

By simply realizing cultural sensitivities were strong enough to justify a localized campaign, with highly niched references, they’ve realized more than $100 million in profits in that region.

The message is clear: If you are too cheap to hire actors to speak our language in your commercial, we’re too cheap to buy your product.

Today, Pepsi is so popular in Quebec, the mere word “Pepsi” can be a racially derogatory term when referencing a Quebecois by an outsider (“he’s one of those pepsis”).

Though Pepsi’s team had no aspirations in becoming synonymous with a slur, it’s an undeniable testament to how successful they’ve been with the Distinct Society.

What more could Pepsi have asked for? Drinking Pepsi in Quebec has become an expression of their national identity.

Merci d’avoir lu (thanks for reading).

Written by

Quality over quantity. That guy from Quora. Enjoy? Follow for more. https://seanjkernan.substack.com/ Open to gigs seanjkernan@gmail.com

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