Soft-drink giants ride wave of post-uprising optimism

Brightly colored billboards with cheerful messages have become fixtures of Cairo’s urban landscape, feet from the squares and streets where protesters called for the fall of the regime a few months ago. Radio and TV commercials feature pop songs by up-and-coming Egyptian artists.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi have both launched massive advertising campaigns, with themes based on optimism and change, aimed at Egypt’s youth.

“Egypt needs to start being rebuilt,” said Ahmed Nazmy, director of marketing for Coca-Cola Egypt, who said the company restructured its advertising strategy in Egypt immediately after the events of 25 January. The plan had been to focus on Coke’s 125th anniversary this year, but the revolution could not be ignored in the company’s marketing.

“We believe that the commonalities between the brand and the event that happened are very, very many,” he said.

In one ad, youths carry ladders, grappling hooks and rope through a dreary downtown Cairo. Scaling their ladders, they then pull the clouds back, shedding light on the city as it comes back to life.

The accompanying music is catchy: “Make tomorrow better, the sun is rising.” Egyptians gaze up at the sunshine, some tipping back old-fashioned glass bottles of Coca-Cola.

In another commercial, a young man cracks open a can of Pepsi while at his laptop, after which, with a pop, a thought bubble appears above his head. He is inspired to head outside, where the downtown buildings of Cairo are painted in pastel colors and he is joined by other youth.

“Tomorrow is waiting for you,” says a singer in the background. “Express from your heart.”

Nazmy said that soon after the fall of Mubarak, he told the Coca-Cola marketing team: “We’re about optimism… Let's inject optimism."

The creators of Pepsi's advertising strategy for Egypt saw a similar opportunity.

“It’s about empowering youth to come up with ideas and do something about them,” said Karim Khouri, managing director at Impact BBDO, the agency that designed ads for Pepsi.

It's too early to see whether the marketing campaigns will strike a chord with Egyptians, but initial feedback is positive. YouTube pages featuring Coke and Pepsi’s most recent Egypt commercials are full of positive comments.

Pepsi’s commercial accumulated 18,291 “likes,” while Coke’s had 48,002.

With an estimated 40 percent of the country’s population under 25, Egypt has a huge market for soft drinks. Radio and television outlets are saturated with ads for snacks and soft drinks.

Food, beverage and tobacco industries in Egypt spent an estimated US$113 million in advertising in 2009. That number fell short only of government advertising, and the communications and real estate industries, according to a study by the Pan Arab Research Center.

Pepsi and Coke make up a great percentage of that spending in an advertising clash of the titans, with Pepsi edging out Coke in advertising and market dominance in recent years.

At US$19 million, Pepsi was Egypt's biggest spender on television ads in 2009. Coca-Cola was the twelfth biggest spender, paying out nearly US$4 million on TV ads the same year, but the company also spends heavily on billboard and radio advertising.

It is smart marketing on the part of large companies to jump on the spirit of the movement, according to Ibrahim Hegazy, head of the marketing faculty at the American University of Cairo. Most are just trying to match their competitor’s ads, he said.

“I think these companies are riding the wave,” he said. “It’s just a switch of direction.”

Previously, he said, large companies in Egypt battled over which could secure the most famous celebrity to appear in their ads. Coke and Pepsi were no exception. Now, instead of featuring big names like singers Tamer Hosni or Nancy Ajram, companies are “talking to the emotions and aspirations of the people.”

But it’s hard to predict if Egyptians will see Coke and Pepsi's different tone as genuine.

Telecom giant Vodafone was recently criticized for an ad, circulated online, in which the company implied that its network contributed to the events of the revolution. The campaign slogan “the power between your hands” was set against scenes of Egyptian daily life. The ad was labeled as hypocritical because Vodafone was one of the three Egyptian mobile phone operators that cut services during the first days of protests, as the government attempted to sabotage demonstrations.

According to Hegazy, the ultimate success of advertising campaigns depends on whether Egyptian consumers trust the message.

Pepsi and Coke have both been careful not to give the impression that they were responsible for the revolution, executives and ad designers said. They are also shying away from blatant political messages.

“There’s that fine line,” said Khouri at Impact BBDO. “You have to leverage the moment to get closer to the consumers to help them participate in a brighter future.”

At the end of the day, Khouri said, it is not in the best interests of brands to be political.

Nazmy said Coke was careful not to claim responsibility for the series of events in its. For example, it deliberately chose not to place someone drinking a Coke in the first scene of the commercial.

“We said, ‘Okay, we’re not the ones who triggered the mood; we are part of the mood,” he said. “We cannot jump on the shoulders of the revolution. We thought that would be very cheap.”

Instead, the designers of both Coke and Pepsi ads say their work is meant to encourage Egyptians.

“I feel like they are playing quite an important role in putting energy in the right places,” said Khouri, who emphasized that the Pepsi ads were made for Egyptians, by a team of Egyptians. “It’s quite refreshing to see brands actively participating in making a brighter future for Egypt.”

However, vendors and their customers seem absorbed with more practical concerns.

Mohammed Hassan works at a kiosk along the Nile, near a shopping mall that was looted and burned during the unrest. It sits next to a colorful sprawling Pepsi sign that says, “Tomorrow begins with an idea.”

“It’s very nice,” was his only comment before moving on to another customer.

Asked whether the business had seen any uptick in Pepsi purchases since the ad’s installation, Sayed Abdul Mahsoot, standing by at the kiosk, answered readily.

“It’s summer, so of course people are buying more Pepsi,” he said. “We work long days, and we are tired at the end of them, so we want something cold to drink.

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