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Advertising Underdogs: How Dr Pepper and RC Cola Challenged the Cola Wars

In the fizzy fight for soda supremacy, a historical underdog sent shockwaves through the beverage industry: Keurig Dr Pepper Inc. has officially claimed the #2 spot in the nation's soda sales rankings.

The soft drink, originally developed by a Texas pharmacist in 1885, has finally tied Pepsi as the second-best-selling soda in the United States, sales data compiled by Beverage Digest shows. Specifically, the site’s analysis shows Dr Pepper and Pepsi each with an 8.3% share of the carbonated soft drink market.

Both drinks, meanwhile, still trail far behind Coca-Cola in sales, which holds 19.2% of the market share, Beverage Digest’s data shows.

Beverage Battleground Beginnings

After over 130 years of mixing it up, this audacious original from Waco, Texas has proven it's more than just a novelty act.

While Coke and Pepsi were still in their infancy, Dr Pepper was branding itself as the "King of Beverages" in 1910 and staking an early claim to the soda throne with its unique blend of 23 flavors including prune, cherry, and a hint of pepper.

Dr Pepper is older than Coca-Cola, having been first served in 1885 in Waco, Texas - one year before Coca-Cola hit the market in Atlanta. While Coke rapidly grew to become the dominant soda brand, Dr Pepper's sales lagged far behind for decades.

Is it Cola or is it Soda?

A pivotal moment came in 1963 when a court ruled that Dr Pepper was not technically a "cola" drink since it didn't contain kola nut.

This decision allowed Dr Pepper to be bottled by the same companies used by Coke and Pepsi, fueling its growth and operational edge.

The cola wars between Coke and Pepsi have raged for over a century, with both titans battling for market dominance through aggressive marketing tactics.

RC Cola: The OG Third Wheel

Before Dr Pepper battled the beverage giants, a bold upstart from Georgia named RC Cola decided to shake things up in the 1940s with an iconic print and television ad campaign featuring stars like Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, Shirley Temple, and Lucille Ball.

 “You Bet RC Tastes Best!”

Not just a slogan, RC Cola staged public taste tests across the country pitting RC against competitors Coke and Pepsi, and declared itself the winner.

It was the first time a beverage company had ever done such a promotion.

Whether or not the tests were rigged in some way is up for debate; what mattered was that people believed them.

Soda Wars: Empires Strike Back

Fast forward to the 1980s, and RC was still chasing the market leaders as their marketing tactics, and budget, were out of this world, literally.

In the Space Cola Wars, the major soft drink competitors Coca-Cola and Pepsi engaged in a costly marketing campaigns and product tests to get their beverages into space, in continuation of the so-called "Cola Wars".

Tackling the 800-lb...Fish

RC Cola, lacking budget but not creative flair, portrayed itself as the rebellious "third fish" in a daring ad swimming against the currents of the two "big fish" Coke and Pepsi.

While risky, having used both trademarks of the beverage giants, the move generated massive attention and solidified RC Cola's reputation as a disruptive force.

The iconic ad is still a favorite among many marketing and advertising leaders and studied in collegiate advertising courses.

And today, it's Dr Pepper that has assumed the mantle of the audacious "third fish," zigging while Coke and Pepsi zag in their endless turf war.

RC Cola: Fish-O-Rama

The Peppers

From its inception, Dr Pepper set itself apart with bold, rebellious ad campaigns celebrating its unique flavor and individualistic spirit.

Dr Pepper's iconic "Be a Pepper" ads of the 70s and 80s were pure genius, fostering a fierce sense of community and brand loyalty with their catchy jingle and diverse cast of


The 'Be a Pepper' spots were lightning in a bottle, a former Pepsi SVP admitted, we just couldn't compete with that level of brand love and belonging.

"Be a Pepper" TV Spot

The Right Stuff: Daring Marketing Stunts

As the cola wars raged on, Pepsi struck back in the 90s with its own iconic and risky "Pepsi Stuff" campaign. The promotion, which promised a Harrier jet to anyone who could collect enough Pepsi points, backfired when a young entrepreneur tried to cash in. The ensuing lawsuit and Pepsi's refusal to award the "Right Stuff" became the stuff of marketing legend, later immortalized in the Netflix documentary "Pepsi, Where's My Jet?".

Decades later, another underdog brand, Liquid Death, would take a page from Pepsi's playbook with their own audacious fighter jet giveaway. The punk rock water brand's irreverent and unconventional marketing tactics have been turning heads and challenging industry norms, much like Dr Pepper and RC Cola did in their early days.

For a deeper dive into these daring marketing stunts and their impact on the beverage industry, check out our previous article on Liquid Death's insurgent marketing strategy below.

As for Dr Pepper, the brand's underdog spirit and willingness to take risks have clearly paid off. Stay tuned for Part 2 of our exploration into Dr Pepper's viral growth and its incredible ascent to become the second-largest soda brand in the United States.

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