Have you ever had that lunch or dinner conversation with a certain
type of American? You know, the ones who haven’t been in the country
long but who are desperate to demonstrate how quickly they’ve
assimilated the local culture.
Soon, they move the conversation on to football. ’I just love your
soccer,’ they say. ’Have you seen any games?’ you ask politely. ’Oh
yes,’ they reply, ’I just love to watch Manchester Town play.’
And that, I’m afraid, pretty much sums up my view of Pepsi’s decision to
sign up with Manchester United, so glowingly written up in some quarters
of the press last week: a Johnny-come-lately-foreigner, desperate to
hitch a ride on the football bandwagon and to ingratiate itself with the
locals, rushes in and signs up with the first big name it can find.
Is that too cruel? Well, Pepsi’s line of reasoning is that football is a
global sport (full marks to them for spotting that one) and Manchester
United is one of the few global football brands (ditto). Put Manchester
United in a few commercials, team up to launch Pepsi-Manchester United
football schools and soccer camps, run the ads and the schools in
countries where Manchester United is bigger than Pepsi (like Thailand
and Malaysia) and, what do you know, some of that Red Devils magic rubs
off on Pepsi with the all-important youth market.
So what’s wrong with that? For a start, Pepsi is about five years too
late getting into football. That ground has already been occupied by
Coke, which was smart enough (not that you need that much brainpower to
work it out) to realise that if you really want to embrace football in
its totality, it’s a mistake to align yourself with one team
(particularly one that all other fans hate).
Coke’s success has been to grasp that for fans football is about defeat
as well as victory, about supporting your team through thick and thin,
about the Raith Rovers of the world as much as the Manchester
In a world of tribal loyalties, authenticity is everything. In their own
ways, Tango (’eat pies, drink Tango’ etc) and Carling have understood
the same truth: that football is about fans, not clubs.
But United is the team for people who think they ought to like
Thus Pepsi’s claim, inherent in the premise behind the deal, to be an
authentic supporter of football, is revealed as flawed from day one. And
how will non-United fans feel about Pepsi? Will they, as the town of
Sunderland did when the then Newcastle manager, Kevin Keegan, appeared
in an ad for Sugar Puffs, buy the rival product?
All of which leaves the big question: why did Pepsi do it? My guess is
that, like all perennial second brands, Pepsi knows it has to do an Avis
and try harder. Except that this time it’s tried too hard and missed the