How Pepsi Landed the Perfect Product Placement, Then Made It a Reality

Meet the integration guru who invented the future

Headshot of Marty Swant

There was a time in the past when the future was not yet real. It was before Marty McFly and Doc raced through decades in a beat-up DeLorean, before hoverboards, before self-lacing shoes.

It also was a time before Pepsi Perfect.

On Oct. 21, 2015—the very day Michael J. Fox's character in Back to the Future II arrived from the 1980s into what is nearly now the present—Pepsi will, for the first time, sell bottles of Pepsi Perfect. The fictional soft drink, rich in vitamins in the movie (and now rich in pop culture), became a non-Coca-Cola classic, at a time when the red-and-white rival ruled Hollywood.

But the tale of how Pepsi Perfect arrived in "Back to the Future II" is a story in its own right.

When the 1980s began, Pepsi hadn't yet entered the realm of product integration for movies. Coca-Cola, on the other hand, had been working its way into movies since the 1916 silent film The Mystery of The Leaping Fish. By the '80s, Coke had built a full wing of its business around product tie-ins.

"Coke had had a product placement program for 20 years," said Bradford Brown, co-founder of Davie Brown Entertainment, the company that has handled placements for Pepsi since the beginning. "And for every movie there's a bottle in, it's always Coke. It's only Coke."

Placing Pepsi

In 1982, Coca-Cola acquired Columbia Pictures, just a few weeks before launching Diet Coke, making the probability of more Coca Cola even more ubiquitous in Hollywood. Brown, who had become friends with Pepsi's then-president Roger Enrico, told Enrico that Pepsi should consider launching its own initiative to enter the big screen.

"I told him we should look at it almost as a defensive strategy," Brown said.

Enrico gave him the green light, and Brown started working by himself in 1982 under the name Pepsi-Cola Entertainment Group. He worked directly with Pepsi for three years before taking on Jim Davie as a partner and changing the business' name in 1987 to Davie Brown. (Davie Brown was later acquired by Omnicom, and is now a part of Omnicom's The Marketing Arm.)

Brown already had some experience in the film industry working side jobs while at the University of California-Los Angeles. The first big placement Pepsi landed was in 1983's Flashdance. The scene with Pepsi in it was a hit, giving Brown a big win that allowed him to take more chances with other integrations.

"I was golden from then on," he said. "Nobody ever said: 'What are you doing? Why are you spending money on this? Why are you traveling here?' They thought I had the magic. I like to keep them thinking that one."

Enter McFly.

Brown had struck up a friendship with the prop master for "Back to the Future," which resulted in the first film including references to Pepsi, such as Marty's conversation with a confused 1950s soda jerker who didn't understand his order of a Pepsi Free (soon to be rebranded Diet Pepsi Caffeine Free Pepsi).

There was also a scene where McFly drinks out of a vintage Pepsi bottle Brown had collected over the years. In fact, Brown had quite a collection. It was a hobby that ultimately spanned 25 years, as he visited swap meets and worked with Pepsi collectors to buy old bottles, vending machines, caps and signs.

This war chest of soda memorabilia was beneficial to prop and set decorators interested in using Pepsi products in films. Brown says there have now been more than 500 occasions where Pepsi is scene in a shot for at least an instant (or a "blink").

By the time "Back to the Future II" began to film, Pepsi had given Brown a zero-base budget, allowing him to spend whatever he needed to spend. So they set out to create a Pepsi for the next millennium.

Future Perfect

The name came from a day when they were thinking about what the Pepsi of the future might be like. They wanted a product that had its traditional benefits, but also included more nutrients.

"So it would be the perfect meal," Brown said. "And that led us to, 'Gee, if it's a perfect meal, why don't we call it Pepsi Perfect?"

The original Pepsi Perfect bottles for the movie were made by a father and son duo operating out of a garage workshop. Brown said four or five dozen were needed for the movie, costing around $1,200 a piece. Brown said he knew the filmmakers were going to use the bottles somehow, but didn't know how visible they would be.

"But when the filmmakers saw the bottle, they liked how different it was," he said. "They almost created the scene around it. You couldn't have scripted it any better, quite frankly."

His team also made a Diet Pepsi Perfect in the same shape but white in color. It was never included in the movie, but Brown was happy enough with his product-placement success.

Making It Real

Linda Lagos, director of marketing for Pepsi, said planning for bringing Pepsi Perfect into the real world began more than a year ago. But she said the idea had been on the company's mind for longer.

On or around Oct. 21, Pepsi will release details about how the 6,500 bottles can be bought online. This weekend, Comic Con attendees will have their chance at an early batch, either by dressing up as Marty McFly or by joining a competition.

On Thursday, Pepsi sponsored a panel about a "Back to the Future" documentary. At one point, the panelists announced they were going to be able to give the first bottles to those who attended.

"The opportunity to take something that was fictional and making it come true for fans and to give somebody the chance to touch it physically was way too good to pass up," she said.

Davie Brown President Tom Meyer said it's not often marketers get a chance to go back in time to relive some of the glory years. He said it's life now imitating art by bringing the future to the present.

"I just think it is incredibly special to deliver on a lot of people's desires and dreams to have a Pepsi Perfect in real life," Meyer said. "To be able to actually deliver on the dreams of people who almost 30 years ago fell in love with not only with the movie but also Pepsi Perfect. That's a really special opportunity and we're getting to live it right now."

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.
Publish date: October 9, 2015 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT