Here, it’s Pepsi: cola war, culture and strategy for entering the Quebec market

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Editor’s note: Trevor Williams travels to Quebec for research on a special report examining the province’s economic and trade ties with Georgia prior to the SEUS/Alliance of Canadian Provinces Conference and its return to Savannah 15 years after its founding. This is the first of her scheduled daily blog posts. The reporting trip is sponsored by the Consulate General of Canada in Atlanta.

I just ColumbusGa. – which some call the “real Coca-Cola house” — and live in Atlanta, where it was marketed. So I’m naturally predisposed to assume Coke’s pre-eminence all over the world. In my mind, the outcome of the cola wars has long been settled, as if there were no other fighters on the battlefield. I live off Coke Zero while I’m on the road.

But there are places where the big red brand’s dominance isn’t a done deal, and indeed, where it occupies the not-so-disjointed underdog role.

Quebec, apparently, is one of those places. Maybe they’ve been brainwashed by the blue and white of their national flag, but Pepsi reigns supreme in The beautiful provinceas we know.

How this happened is well documented and can be discovered with a quick Google search. Case studies, news articles, blog posts have been written, to which I can’t hope to add much substance. With just a few clicks, what I can assume is that Pepsi deployed a strategy that wittily played on the province’s unique linguistic and cultural identity. Ironically, this is one of Coke’s strengths elsewhere in the world, where some are surprised to learn that Coke is not a local brand.

In 1984, Pepsi created a series of targeted advertising campaigns employing a comedian Claude Meunierwhich portrayed a series of stereotypical Quebecers with a maniacal passion for Pepsi.

The campaign, an ironic way of poking fun at their own idiosyncrasies, was a success, and Pepsi propelled itself to the position of market leader, although Coke continued to pump money into its own advertising campaigns. In 2009, Pepsi was selling coke more than 2 to 1, according to the New York Times. As the paper points out, the rise of Pepsi from the 1970s corresponded with the rise of the Parti Québécois, a separatist party that conducted two referenda on Quebec’s separation from Canada in 1980 and 1995. (Both have obviously failed, but the second by a razor-thin margin).

In a subsequent commercial that aired in 2012, Pepsi returned to the cultural manual. The campaign pokes fun at an out-of-town visitor, a naïve coke drinker (this one hits a little too close to home) who must be schooled when he arrives that, Here is Pepsi — Here is Pepsi. This could be seen as a retort to an insult that had developed among English-speaking Quebecers, who mocked their French-speaking brethren by calling them “pepsi.”

At the risk of praising the big blue, Pepsi’s strategy holds lessons for Georgian companies trying to break into the Quebec market. Many Americans consider Canada to be “the 51st state” and indeed the cultural similarities often make it a suitable first market for export or global expansion. But as Georgia’s bureau chief in Montreal and others have told me, those doing business in the francophone region of 8 million people, which accounts for 20% of Canada’s GDP, should recognize that even if they are not technically dealing with a distinct nation, they might be advised to calibrate their messaging and market entry strategies as if they were.

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