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By Dick Maggiore and Mark Vandegrift

Challenger Brand Advertising Poppi vs Coke Pepsi

It’s a dog-eat-dog world: the rise of challenger brand advertising

There have always been brands like McDonalds, Nike, and Amazon, that dominate the headspace of consumers. Despite massive control of their respective markets, this shield isn’t entirely impenetrable. Challenger brand advertising has historically found gaps in their armor by bringing attention to consumer desires left unsatisfied.

A classic challenger brand is Netflix, who disrupted traditional TV broadcasting with on-demand streaming. Today, millions of households have cut the cord. Another example is Warby Parker, who challenged the prices of eyeglasses with stylish looks minus designer costs. Halo Top eradicated calorie-guilt with ice cream that caps at 380 calories per pint. Even Uber revolutionized transportation with an easy alternative to the taxi and car service industry.

If anything, challenger brand advertising is just as much a part of the market as these larger brands. These successful challenger stories perfectly display what’s at the heart of the classic phrase, “it’s a dog-eat-dog world,” showing how the strongest, most agile, and innovative brands can become permanent fixtures in their categories. And there’s no greater example than what’s happening today in the soda industry.

Poppi — soda’s latest encounter with challenger brand advertising

Coca-Cola was an instant success in 1886, and Pepsi quickly followed onto the scene just two years later. Since then, the wars between these soda giants have continued to the present day. The famous 1980s Cola Wars even incited some of the most famous marketing tactics and blunders of the 20th century, including the “Pepsi Challenge,” which involved blind taste tests confirming a consumer preference for Pepsi, and the “New Coke” vs “Coca-Cola Classic” debacle.

The pair have continually sparred with each other, but they’ve also faced strong challenger brand advertising. Most well-known was the lemon-lime soda Seven Up, which capitalized on its crisp refreshing taste using the tagline “the Uncola.” Seven Up eventually joined forces with Pepsi as its counterpart to Coca-Cola’s Sprite.

Now, challenger brand advertising has returned to the soda industry with the introduction of Poppi, who made national waves during the 2024 Super Bowl. Like Seven Up, Poppi advertises itself as something different from Coke or Pepsi. The new soda capitalizes on its gut health properties, which heavily contrast with the unhealthy, sugary, high-calorie mainstream sodas. Instead, Poppi promotes its simple clean ingredient list, which includes prebiotics and apple cider vinegar all with less than five grams of sugar per can. Let’s look at some of the ways Poppi’s challenger brand advertising has led to its success.

  1. Filling a market gap. The primary motive of a challenger brand is to uncover a gap in the marketplace. Challengers take advantage of these unclaimed territories. Ideally, from a positionist’s perspective, a skilled and agile brand not only stakes its place, but creates an entirely new category where they can then become the market leader. For those who enjoy the taste, feel, and experience of soda without the unhealthy consequences, there’s a solution. It’s called Poppi. And by successfully identifying these consumers, the healthy gut soda’s challenger brand advertising is already marching towards market leadership in a new category — healthy soda.
  2. Developing a clear brand identity. Another aspect of challenger brand advertising is not just taking hold of the market gap, but entering it with a clear brand identity. Similar to Pepsi’s classic tagline, “The Choice of a New Generation,” Poppi has asserted itself as the choice of the Zillennial Generation, one that’s concerned about topics like mental health, diversity, sustainability, and clean living. Just as Zoomers are challenging the status quo, so too is Poppi challenging the perception of Coca-Cola and Pepsi by reinventing the soda experience as something enjoyable and healthy.
  3. Connecting to the audience. Besides developing a distinct brand identity, challenger brand advertising must understand how to communicate it. Though Poppi gained immense exposure with its Super Bowl commercial, its “Soda’s Back” campaign actually launched in June 2023. The initiative has utilized a full arsenal with digital components, out-of-home ads, and influencer marketing.

Through each of these tactics, Poppi has continued injecting its audience with its brand identity, slowly building enough awareness to warrant its appearance at the Super Bowl. But let’s return to the commercial in question and see how Poppi uses its challenger brand advertising to dramatize its position as the leading healthy soda.

The ad carries on in a vibrant and bubbly Y2K aesthetic, a style appreciated by the TikTok generation. Though the visuals are eye-catching, it’s the paired messaging that makes the impact. The spot begins with a montage of rocket launches and the internet to reveal Poppi as the next thing to redefine the world as we know it. As the narrator continues, she explains where Poppi differentiates from the rest with healthy ingredients, low sugar, and low calories, and yet, it still tastes, feels, and most importantly, is soda. The viewer never loses sight of that connection as the narrator relentlessly hammers the word “soda” throughout as if the commercial itself is activating this new perception.

The commercial is a perfect storm in terms of challenger brand advertising. The spot is pleasing to the eye, provides a simple and concise message, and most importantly, presents the challenge in question, not just to major brands, but also the audience. If you want to return to loving soda, then take the leap and try Poppi. All of these components, of course, play directly into the brand’s demographic. It nails everything required to attract Generation Z, mixing consumerism, activism, and style into one strategic minute.

What will Poppi do next?

Launching the “Soda’s Back” challenger brand advertising campaign almost a year ago, Poppi seems to have arrived at peak momentum as consumers everywhere, skeptical or not, rush to grocery stores for their own at-home taste tests. They have even caught the eye of Coca-Cola sparking discussions of an acquisition. So how will it maintain the hype as the Super Bowl ad inches into the past?

That’s the question in the case of most challenger brand advertising. If Poppi stays true to its stake as the leader in healthy soda and continues to differentiate itself from Coke and Pepsi in the market, there’s a chance it really will revolutionize the soda experience.

But Poppi must confront another imminent threat. While its position against mainstream soda is clear, other competitors are rising in the healthy soda category. Olipop’s challenger brand advertising highlights many of the same qualities as Poppi, with healthy ingredients and a similar mission as “a new kind of soda.” There are some mild differences. Where Poppi emphasizes simple ingredients and its star component, apple cider vinegar, Olipop stresses its plant-based ingredients that provide the consumer more fiber.

Nonetheless, Poppi has successfully differentiated itself from the mainstream, and now it’s time to face the forces in its own market. If the beverage really hopes to keep its claim as the drink of the Zillennial generation, it needs to maintain its market leadership with challenger brand advertising that communicates its difference from brands like Olipop.

Whatever the next chapter holds, we look forward to watching what Poppi does next in its category. With a strong start and creeping competitors, it’s sure to be an interesting road ahead.