As brand triumphs go, this one was highly predictable. Indeed, its trajectory was long ago set in stone. 26 years ago, to be exact. In 1989.
That was the year when the movie “Back to the Future, Part 2” was released, in which the characters Marty McFly, Dr. Emmet Brown and Jennifer Parker — played by Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Elisabeth Shue, respectively — are transported forward in time in their gleaming, iconic DeLorean car to the then far-in-the-future-seeming date of October 21, 2015. The movie, one of a trilogy, killed it at the box office, earning over $330 million and becoming a cult favorite.
For a quarter century the drumbeat towards Back To The Future Day built, becoming ever louder over the years. By the time the big day neared, it was being heralded in once unimaginable ways — on social media and all over the Web. The hashtags #BTTFDay and #BTTF soon trended on Twitter.
The movies’ legions of fans weren’t the only ones to notice the imminent anniversary. “#Brands are milking Back to the Future Day for all it’s worth,” Fortune magazine tweeted. Those jumping on the brandwagon included USA Today, which wrapped its day’s edition in the famous bogus replica of its own front page that had been shown in the film; even its headlines —“Cholesterol May Be Cancer Cure,” for one — had long since be catapulted to instant fame.
“This movie had some great product placement, so we knew this was a great chance to have some fun with branded content,” Matt Urbanos, Gannett’s vice president of brand and creative strategy at Gannett told Adweek.
BTTF 2 was famously full of great gadgets — from GoogleGlass-resembling eyewear to a hoverboard for airborne skateboarding — and products, including Pepsi Perfect and, from Nike, self-lacing sneakers. “It’s product placement coming to life!” Fortune magazine’s Jonathan Chew wrote.
Pepsi Perfect’s star turn took place when Mary McFly ordered a it at the cutting-edge Café 80s in the fictional town of Hill Valley, California. The product looked suitably futuristic — more like a flashlight than a bottle, really— with a streamlined silhouette, runic-looking lettering, and an outsized plastic twist-off top in trademark Pepsi blue.
It may have been just a cameo appearance but, like just about every other facet of the three-part BTTF series, it hit home. Fans fetishized it, along with just everything else about the movie.
So when Pepsi tweeted on October 20th that a limited edition of 6,500 bottles would be available for sale the next day, the reaction was frenzied. At $20.15 — a number chosen to commemorate this anniversary year — for a 16.9 ounce bottle, the very size featured in the film, Pepsi wasn’t giving it away. But to fans that hardly mattered.
Then the snafus began. The product was released early, sold by accident before midnight on Oct 21. More predictably, while its quantity was limited, its fan base is decidely not. Many more people wanted the souvenirs — Passionately! Boy, did they want them!— than could hope to actually get their hands on them.
From that point on Pepsi Perfect became a perfect… disaster, unfolding, agonizingly, in real time. A kind of call and response took place on Twitter, with @Pepsi issuing peppy tweets — which came to sound distinctly tone deaf — as its fans loudly seethed.
“As promised, our limited edition bottles of #PepsiPerfect went on sale this #BTTF morning!” the company wrote, not seeming to realize how devastating this news might be. “It sold out faster than we can say 1.21 Gigawatts.”
Fans raged in response. The hashtag #pepsiimperfect rose up, along with stinging comments about how Coke would have done it better. [email protected] Thats so whack,” Ivan @INFINITEAB1LITY tweeted. “As a diehard BttF fan, I was so amped for this. @CocaCola wouldn’t do this. #Ruined #YouSuck #PepsiPerfect.
And so forth.
On Amazon — where reviews of its “Pepsi Perfect Cola, 16.9 Ounce – Limited Collector’s Edition” accumulated, all in one place, for all to see — the battle looked even bloodier. Frustrated would-be customers proliferated. “I am SO upset!!” one wrote. “This didn’t even pop up in the search! And you released it a whole hours early? Are you kidding me?????????” As the day went on, and the sought-after potion proved ever more elusive, positive reviews trended inexorably down. By day’s end, 85 percent of Pepsi Perfect’s reviews were one star ones.
Oh, so what was in the bottle? Something that ushered in the future of pop drinks, giving them new fiz? Actually, not. Its ingredients matched “the lineup for a regular real-sugar Pepsi,” reported Amanda Kooser of Cnet. And why not? Its flavor didn’t seem to matter at all. The subject hardly came up in the media, social or otherwise. The cachet was all that seemed to count.
In other words, Pepsi had about the easiest branding homework assignment imaginable, and almost thirty years in which to make it work. Their task was simple: Replicate the long-ago fictional soda bottle, crank up the social media, and watch sales — and brand-consciousness — soar. It was to be a perfect Pepsi Perfect.
So how could the company have blown it as it did? Did no one consider that Generation Xers, and their ilk, clamoring for a piece of cult pop culture history, might not care about owning a limited edition? At least not one that was that limited. (We’re not talking about Basquiat lithographs, after all.) The important thing was to score a bottle, or just know someone who had, then crow about it on social media.
So a slam dunk promotion turned into a brand disaster. And a ready-made audience that might have risen up in admiration, stormed the social media instead, virtual pitchforks in hand.
So was the brand permanently battered in the end? Not really. While Jonathan Chew, the Fortune writer, lamented that, “even in 2015, companies cannot win,” Pepsi didn’t seem to require much sympathy by day’s end. A spokesperson smoothly assured the public that, while a glitch had taken place — as “sometimes happens when going Back to the Future…” — the company would be putting another edition of 6,500 bottles up for sale on Nov. 3rd.
(A cynic might predict that other “limited editions” would follow.)
So the brouhaha subsided. At which point, presumably, the competition for the new batch — Pepsi in a new bottle — churned up again, ready for its next big day.