The absence of Pepsi from among the prominent advertisers at the ongoing ICC World Cup 2019 in England and Wales has robbed us of a potentially exciting off-field battle, the kind we saw during the 1996 tournament in India.

That World Cup was supposed to be a celebration of a newly liberalized India whose open markets had drawn the world’s top multinationals over the previous five years. For the first time, big global brands were involved with an international sporting event in India, and the stakes were high. When Coca-Cola bagged the official sponsorship rights to the Wills World Cup, Pepsi retaliated with an advertising campaign that was in equal parts outrageous and ground-breaking.

In a piece for India International Centre Quarterly titled Nothing Official About It? The World Cup, author Mike Marqusee wrote: “The World Cup saw the climax of a remarkable battle for supremacy in subcontinental cricket: The battle between Pepsi and Coke."

Pepsi’s “Nothing official about it" campaign, perhaps the first instance of ambush marketing in the country, captured the imagination of a young India eager to throw away the stifling controls of its past. As an official sponsor, Coke’s advertising was faceless as well as soulless, and came with the constant caption “the official drink". It was the voice of the establishment. Pepsi upended these efforts with a simple yet vital insight—that a new generation of Indian fans was tired of the status quo and was looking to bust some myths. Pepsi’s advertising exploited this to the hilt with shots of Sachin Tendulkar sending the ball crashing through a truck windscreen, while other stars of the World Cup like Mohammad Azharuddin, Curtly Ambrose and Dominic Cork filled the screen in coloured clothing with a markedly irreverent attitude on display. Why, even the venerable Dickie Bird, the then last word in umpiring, was shown making crazy gestures.

“Nothing official about it" became an anthem for young Indians, and as Marqusee concluded: “Pepsi turned its defeat in the bidding war to its advantage."

Global sporting events have always been apt battlegrounds for corporate rivals, and Coca-Cola and Pepsi, whose products have little to differentiate them from each other, have been at the forefront of these. Thus, in 2014, Coke was the official drink of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, but Pepsi again sought to ambush its way in by signing up Lionel Messi and a host of other top players for its “Superstar 2014 football squad".

Ambush marketing first emerged after the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided that in the future it would only look at a few high-value sponsors for the games. Most other sports bodies across the world quickly figured out the logic of the IOC move and highly prized events like the world cup became the domain of a few rich sponsors. This forced other companies that got left out to look at other means of making their presence felt at these events.

The result has been a series of such clashes. The battle of the cola giants in India was an echo of a similar war between sportswear giants Adidas, which has sponsored FIFA since 1970 and also designed the official ball for each of the world cups since then, and Nike, which came to the soccer party only much later, as late as the 1994 World Cup in the US. But since then, it has sought to crash Adidas’s party by sponsoring many of soccer’s star players, like Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, and using them in its TV and web campaigns preceding the tournaments. AdAge magazine cited a YouGov BrandIndex survey of consumer perception in the US, UK and Germany, which concluded that Nike had benefited from the FIFA World Cup more than any other brand despite not being an official sponsor of the event (https://bit.ly/2WS7AT2).

It wasn’t the only one to do so. In the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Anheuser Busch’s Budweiser was the official beer for the tournament. One of its competitors, Dutch beer brand Bavaria, pulled off a heist in a Holland-versus-Denmark game, paying female models dressed as Denmark fans to undress midway through the game and reveal Bavaria-branded orange dresses underneath. The models were duly ejected from the stadium and later charged, but in the bargain the story went viral and Bavaria got its money’s worth.

In recent years, the focus of advertisers has shifted to reaching newer audiences and using digital platforms, which now constitute a large share of how people watch global sporting events. Marketing wars of the Pepsi-versus-Coke and Nike-versus-Adidas kind have now been replaced by campaigns more suited to exploiting these new media. Some of the best campaigns are now played out exclusively on social media. Energy drinks company Red Bull’s 2012 “Space dive", which featured Austrian Felix Baumgartner jumping from the edge of space into blue oblivion and was live-streamed on YouTube to a concurrent audience of some 8 million viewers, became the trendsetter for such sports campaigns.

The current cricket World Cup, with the likes of Hublot, Nissan, Oppo, Emirates, Bira 91 and Uber as sponsors, has yet to see anything that could match the marketing wars of the past in scope or audacity. Unless, of course, Pepsi is lying in wait.

Sundeep Khanna is executive editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage.

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