Pepsi unveils its pounds 300m bolt from the blue

Cola wars: Relaunch aims to colour customer judgement in battle of the brands
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Five hundred bewildered onlookers were herded on to trains and shoved through dark corridors yesterday to a secret destination, ending up in a deserted aircraft hangar.

They were observers in the latest war between two global giants seeking international domination. Project Blue, kept under wraps for nearly two years, was finally unveiled.

It was not a defence briefing or the launch of the latest sophisticated long-range missile. The massed ranks of journalists from 30 countries had been brought together to witness Pepsi spending pounds 300m on changing the colour of its can from white and red to blue.

With supermarket own brands and newcomer Virgin Cola threatening to squeeze the market, the relaunch in a secluded part of Gatwick Airport was planned with military precision.

At present, Pepsi says its market share for carbonated drinks in Britain is 12.2 per cent, compared with 32.7 per cent for Coca-Cola, while Virgin Cola introduced in November 1994 has already gained 7.5 per cent.

Foremost in the hype are two supermodels, Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford, and tennis star Andre Agassi. And if cola wars have been previously fought on land, Pepsi's relaunch yesterday took the battle not only to the skies by painting a Concorde blue at an estimated cost of pounds 100,000, but also to space with a message from Russian cosmonauts on the Mir station.

The decision to change the colour to blue was taken after research in Bahrain where consumers saw it as more modern and trendy; a pilot study led to a 9 per cent increase in sales.

Richard Brandt of Landor Associates, designer of the new can, said blue had been chosen "because it tends to be most people's favourite colour". He went on: "It's a futuristic colour, it's all about innovation and competition. It's the choice of a new generation . . . I know it's the colour of the Conservative Party but this is totally different."

Perma-tans and perma-smiles were much in evidence with executives assuring consumers that drinking new blue Pepsi - only the can has changed - equalled living on the edge and changing the script.

But marketing experts were unimpressed. Sean Brierley, deputy editor of Marketing Week, said the change was a gimmick. "Pepsi are making out this is a real Promethean effort, but cans have their design changed constantly. And the amount of money they are spending . . . The cola market is constantly thinking in the short term now. Sales may go up for a month, but we should look at what's happening in a year's time."

Pepsi's competitors remained publicly unruffled. A spokeswoman for Virgin said: "If Pepsi are throwing money at changing the colour of a can that's a move of desperation. We're choosing to put money into new product development."

Louise Terry, of Coca-Cola, said: "We're fighting the battle on a different scale. I think from our viewpoint we need to make people buy more soft drinks rather than tea, coffee or squash. We outsell Pepsi by three to one. And by the way, we sent cola cans up to the Mir station last year."