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Volume 21 No. 1
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After 50-plus years with Coke, Steelers switching to Pepsi

Terry Lefton
Coke’s Mean Joe Greene TV ad ran during Super Bowl XIV in 1980, but more than 30 years later it is still one of the most renowned Super Bowl ads. Greene was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987, but it can easily be argued that the ad’s fame has exceeded that of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive tackle. Over time, it has grown in stature to become one of the most famous TV ads of all time — inside or outside of sports. The ad won a Clio as best commercial of the year, and in a 2011 poll, Ad Age readers named the spot their favorite all-time Super Bowl ad.

If that ad were to be updated for the coming NFL season, however, you’d need to replace Coke’s ubiquitous contour bottle with a container of Pepsi. Pepsi is replacing Coke as the Steelers’ soft drink sponsor, ending a relationship between the red cola and the team that lasted more than 50 years.

NFL sources tell us the deal is a decade in length and is a “Power of One” arrangement that includes salty snacks from Pepsi’s Frito-Lay unit. Pepsi has held NFL league sponsorship rights since 2002.

The move is a 180 from what’s happening at the other end of Pennsylvania, where the Philadelphia Eagles are flipping from Pepsi to Coke, and comes at a time when more than 20 NFL team soft drink sponsorships are in play (SportsBusiness Journal, April 30-May 6).

Joe Greene drank a Coke in the iconic Super Bowl ad, but the Steelers are making a change.
Given the Steelers’ six Super Bowl titles and their extraordinarily large national (and international) fan base, though, flipping them from the red to the blue is akin to a Republican winning Massachusetts in a presidential election year.

The original “Mean Joe” Coke ad from McCann-Erickson has been mimicked many times. Most recently, Procter & Gamble used Greene in a homage from Grey Advertising to the Steelers’ original ad, this time for Downy fabric softener. The ad, which ran in this year’s Super Bowl pregame show, was nearly identical to the original, save for the fact that when Greene throws his jersey as a gift, it is thrown back, because it’s malodorous. “Last time I’m doing this,” Greene says.

Troy Polamalu reprised the role in a 2009 Super Bowl ad for Coke Zero, and the original commercial inspired a 1981 NBC TV movie, “The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid,” in which Greene played himself.

Along with replacing the lines that pour soda at Heinz Field, a change-out will have to be made at the Coca-Cola Great Hall, a museum and hall of fame at Heinz Field that showcases Steeler history.

We can’t see Coke allowing Pepsi to swap beverages in the ad as well, but there will be plenty of opportunities for Pepsi to activate its new rights. This is the 80th anniversary of the Steelers and the 40th anniversary of Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception.”

BETTER LUCK: While Andrew Luck was the top pick in this year’s NFL draft, we continue to believe that Robert Griffin III will be the most marketable player among this year’s crop of incoming collegians. Griffin, chosen second overall by the Washington Redskins, recently shot a Nissan campaign in Los Angeles with some fellow Heisman Trophy winners, including Eddie George, Herschel Walker and Mark Ingram. For Nissan, lead sponsor of the Heisman Trophy, it’s a relaunch of last season’s Heisman House campaign, which ran on ESPN. The Nissan ad is one of at least three national ads RG III will have this year. The others are for Adidas and Subway. CAA represents RG III.

COMINGS & GOINGS: Longtime NHL marketer Ken Yaffe is hanging out his own shingle after 19 years at the league, most recently as senior vice president of international. He described the new Yaffe Sports Ventures as an agency with capabilities in global marketing, and event marketing, aiming at European companies looking at the North American sports market or vice versa. Yaffe most recently oversaw the NHL’s international media, event, sponsorship and licensing businesses and previously directed the league’s fan development and events efforts. YSV’s clients are athletic training center Athletic Republic, a 150-location chain of sport-specific training centers looking to expand into Europe and Russia, along with MIPS (Multi-Directional Impact Protection System), a Swedish company that makes a helmet technology said to reduce concussions. “Player safety is the foremost issue in hockey, and their goal is to be as much of an ‘ingredient brand’ as Gore-Tex and Intel,” Yaffe said. … Group Director Christine Brown is leaving Octagon after 13 years to join NRG as director of sponsorship. As detailed here (SportsBusiness Journal, Feb. 6-12), the energy provider has been buttressing its sponsorship portfolio lately with NFL team sponsorships accompanied by stadium buildouts with Dallas, New England, both New York clubs, Philadelphia and Washington.

Terry Lefton can be reached at