The Successful, Scrappy & Sometimes Questionable Marketing of Dr Pepper
Today is the birthday of sorts for Texas’ favorite brain tonic: Dr Pepper.
The first DP was served in 1885 in a Waco pharmacy by proto-soda jerk Charles Alderton, and years later the “King of Beverages” quickly gained a grassroots following throughout the southwest after its recipe began being distributed out of Dublin, Texas.
But, 93 years ago today, the beverage-maker incorporated and began its decades-long battle with the big two soda makers – Coke and Pepsi – in earnest. A lot of that depended on its memorable, occasionally on-point, often questionable marketing.
Prior to the incorporation, Dr. Pepper – it later dropped the period in its name – was known for its “Phos-Ferrates.”
Its first logo incorporated wheat stalks and an iron anvil into its initial logo – “Phos” for the phosphates present in wheat and “Ferrates” for its ferric iron content.
In Austin, it was initially bottled by the Austin Bottling Company on Red River, which, at least in 1896, offered coupons to promote the newly-imported "food drink," a term given to tonics and sodas that contained substances like caffeine, morphine, laudanum, cocaine and the like.
After the passage of the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act, which in effect limited the use of caffeine in sodas and altogether banned the use of now-illicit substances like cocaine – a la Coca-Cola. The law slightly hobbled Coca-Cola's sales nationwide and gave Dr. Pepper an advantage in Texas. The company didn't use caffeine or cocaine, and it was friendly with the state's Food Commissioner J.S. Abbott, who helped draft a bill which banned the use of caffeine in any soda.
On Feb. 27, state representatives accused Dr. Pepper of writing the bill, as its product wasn't caffeinated and they stood to benefit from the bill. So, Dr. Pepper took out an ad in the Austin Daily Statesman on March 1, printing a scathing letter that denied any collusion took place.
That law passed, and, it should be noted, Abbott was later a guest of the Dr. Pepper Bottling Company at the seventh annual Convention of the Texas State Bottlers Association, where his son was named an honorary bottler.
After the Pure Food and Drug Act, Dr. Pepper really leaned into its formula's caffeine- and cocaine-free status in its marketing. While caffeine wasn't banned in the law, a USDA lawsuit against Coca-Cola challenged the soda's caffeine use, alleging it was mislabeled and that caffeine was the active agreement.
The company funded a stable of researchers' studies caffeine's effects on humans and argued in a federal court that the substance was a stimulant, but that its effects were mild. The federal judge decided it wasn't integral, but the use of caffeine was later decided by a 1916 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Of course, Dr Pepper would later add caffeine to its formula.
It's not often that a marketer uses "cell building" to promote a soda. But, for near-unexplainable reasons, the company decided to eschew references to caffeine and other substances in this 1913 ad. The bizarre pitch opts for a tone that's more akin to a one of McConaughey's feverish monologues from "True Detective" and syntax that feels like it was written by HAL 9000.
According to the Dr Pepper Museum, the soda adopted its pervasive 10-2-4 slogan after research was published that suggested people experience lulls in energy throughout the day, suggesting that sugar was a quick fix for lethargy:
During that era, research was discovered proving that sugar provided energy and that the average person experiences a letdown during the normal day at 10:30a.m., 2:30p.m. and 4:30p.m. A contest was held for the creation of an ad using this new information. The winner of the ad campaign came up with the famous advertising slogan, "Drink a bite to eat at 10, 2, and 4."
The company even branded a few World War II-era radio shows using the slogan as its centerpiece – including the "Dough for Darts" show and "The 10-2-4 Ranch," which you can listen to below.
The slogan stuck, and the company kept the slogan until the 1950s.
In the tumult of the 1960s, Dr Pepper literally branded itself "the most misunderstood soft drink." Whether that was a reflection of the time or a crisis of confidence remains to be seen, but the company decided to saddle up with Dick Clark to promote the soda in the face of Coca-Cola's unrelenting global expansion and domination of the soda market.
Their pitch: Hey, heat this soda up with some lemon.
Perhaps the most successful campaign of all of Dr Pepper's, the 1977 "I'm a Pepper" series of ads starring DavidNaughton, spanned the better part of six years.
The campaign went on to feature Michael Jackson before he traded up for Pepsi and even inspired a line of "I'm a Pepper"-branded swag from J.C. Penney. Despite an attempt to revive the ads a few years ago, the company couldn't again reach that high watermark – a strange, non-ironic time when people genuinely genuinely wanted to wear clothes branded with soda labels.
For the first time in its history, Dr Pepper messed with a good thing. The cherry-flavored abomination only lasted a year.
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