Pepsi’s new advertising slogan, ‘Change the Script’, could have been
coined for its vice-president of marketing, Europe, Mhairi McEwan. In
May last year, after 14 years in the dry world of detergent marketing
with Unilever, she took on the job at Pepsi. One year later, the soft
drinks giant undertook one of the biggest marketing moves in recent
years - dumping its old can design and spending pounds 300m turning
It grabbed headlines and consumer attention by turning everything from
Concorde to the Daily Mirror blue, and threw down a challenge to its
arch rival Coca-Cola; top that if you can. Coke responded with
sponsorship programmes built around sport, including Euro ’96,
Wimbledon, and the Olympics.
The two cola brands have since been locked into a battle over which
marketing move has come out on top. Pepsi was dealt an apparent blow
when figures leaked shortly after the Project Blue launch suggested
sales had actually fallen.
McEwan, perhaps harking back to her days at Unilever, decided at the
time to stay quiet and make no comment.
Several months later, when the hype has to be matched with sales
figures, she is coming out fighting: ‘Pepsi has set itself the target of
being the world’s fastest-growing refreshment beverage company and we’re
The gloves are clearly off. But those who know McEwan from her Unilever
days say she will enjoy the scrap. ‘She always used to put the fear of
God into technical departments,’ says former colleague Jerry Wright who
is now Lever Bros business group manager for non-fabrics. He recalls her
winning the nickname Little Miss Samson from the Unilever R&D department
after she snapped a product prototype in half to demonstrate its
Former colleagues talk with admiration about how McEwan successfully
juggles a top marketing job and a family with two young children. McEwan
joined Unilever in 1982, having spent three years studying psychology
and industry at Leicester University. She was hired as a trainee at
Lever Bros by former chief executive, Andrew Seth. ‘We recruited some
really strong people that year but she was one of the best,’ says Seth.
‘She proved she could do the job just as well as the best man there.’
They liked her, but McEwan clearly liked them too - and stayed with the
company for 13 years. She rose from brand manager to marketing manager,
working with brands such as Comfort and Persil Automatic, and retail
accounts such as Asda and Kwik Save.
At Unilever she was considered one of the best in the business. But she
candidly admits: ‘I was heading towards my mid-30s and decided it was
now or never. I could have stayed at Unilever until I retired but I’d
got to the point where I could write detergent briefs in my sleep.’
When she took on the role at Pepsi she was suddenly involved in the
company’s most radical marketing move since it came up with ‘Choice of a
New Generation’, and spent weeks flying back and forth across the
Atlantic to decide how and when Project Blue should roll out.
Of the other European markets which turned blue, Pepsi claims
significant share increases in Sweden, Finland and Ireland, while the
Netherlands is up year on year. It even claims to be advancing in non-
blue markets such as France and Italy.
McEwan may only have been in the Pepsi job a year, but she already has
the sort of evangelical zeal that leads her to talk about eventually
‘owning’ the colour blue. She produces new figures from Conquest
Research as evidence that Pepsi’s awareness-building programme has gone
Asked about Pepsi’s campaign against Coke’s high-profile Olympics and
Euro ’96 sponsorship, she replies : ‘We don’t develop marketing plans in
response to Coke. We want Pepsi to be a positive choice.’
As for her own choices, at 35 she is adamant they’ve been positive too,
especially the move from Unilever. ‘Joining Pepsi was a fantastic
opportunity. Pepsi is smaller with quicker decision-making lead times.
Decisions get made much faster and through more informal lines.’
Going blue was just the first move for Pepsi. It knows that the battle
for share against Coke is a long-term game. McEwan’s record suggests she
might just be the woman to give the boys in Atlanta the blues.
1979-1982 Psychology and industry student Leicester University
1982-1995 Marketing manager Unilever
1995-present Vice-president of marketing, Europe Pepsi