How Pepsi Got Suckered Into Every Hot Branding Trend

The soda giant’s latest imitation project is a relaxation drink that deploys all the millennial branding tricks

As if LaCroix, Liquid Death, and Topo Chico weren’t enough to keep the beverage aisle exciting, there’s a new water upstart slated to make its way onto supermarket shelves in the first quarter of 2021. And it comes from none other than PepsiCo.

In September, Pepsi announced it would launch a new product called Driftwell, an “enhanced” non-carbonated water beverage containing L-theanine and magnesium that is supposed to aid with sleep, although the company cannot legally make that claim and is left to drop vague hints about “relaxation.” Pepsi’s development of Driftwell stemmed from an internal pitch competition called “The Next Big Idea,” an initiative started last year by chairman and CEO Ramon Laguarta to encourage employees and associates to come up with new product concepts and innovations. “Driftwell is the fastest beverage brand ever to market from PepsiCo,” commented a company spokesperson in BeverageDaily.com.

Early reactions to the news bordered on roasting. Thrillist called Driftwell “arguably the strangest innovation since Crystal Pepsi,” while Gizmodo questioned the choice behind the name, suggesting it “could just as easily be a Bluetooth-connected kayak” and ranked a list of alternatives more in line with a functional beverage linked to relaxation: Dr. Sleeper, Melatonin Dew, and Pepsi Coma.

Driftwell’s branding and logo have also raised some eyebrows. Pepsi appears to be taking a page straight out of the playbook of trendy, digitally native direct-to-consumer brands. Its lowercase wordmark, set in an approachable sans serif typeface, echoes the logotypes of Allbirds, Warby Parker, Away, and their marketing progeny— “blands,” as labeled by Ben Schott which claim “simultaneously to be unique in product, groundbreaking in purpose, and singular in delivery, while slavishly obeying an identikit formula of business model, look and feel, and tone of voice.”

The overall Driftwell aesthetic suggests a product made not by a $200 billion multinational food and beverage colossus, but by, as Cheryl Wischhover describes the breed, “a hipster in Brooklyn.” Wischhover has pointed to major retailers like Target and ShopRite as glomming onto a similar look, and Driftwell — ostensibly water spiked with relaxants — comes off as another corporate ripoff of other sparkling, CBD-infused upstarts, Recess and Sprig.

Historically, imitation in branding has tended to happen the other way around, where the little guys copy the big guys.

It’s easy to appreciate why Recess might be an appealing target for Pepsi’s mimicry. Recess’ Instagram-friendly brand, replete with gradient pastels, Bob Ross–esque happy little clouds, and a logotype that looks like it was neatly chalked on a blackboard by the world’s kindest third-grade teacher, positions it as a $5-a-can “antidote to modern times.” Founded in 2018, the wholesale business has since launched new revenue streams, including recurring subscriptions, merchandise drops, as well as partnerships and events.

That Pepsi would use Driftwell to ride the coattails of Recess’ brand, though, seems counterintuitive. Historically, imitation in branding has tended to happen the other way around, where the little guys copy the big guys. In 1969, Major League Baseball, still unquestionably the national pastime, celebrated its centennial by introducing a new logo featuring a silhouette of a player in the negative space between fields of blue and red that created a rectangular holding shape with curved corners. One year later, the still-nascent National Basketball Association adopted a very similar mark, and for years, any sports organization in need of an air of legitimacy shamelessly knocked off this particular logo motif.

Major League Baseball’s 1969 logo and some of its subsequent imitators.

Analysis of data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows that this logo trend rose in popularity for decades; only in the past 10 years did it finally subside, having devolved into self-parody in logos such as those for Major League Eating and the National Dodgeball League.

The beverage business was long the same: Industry giant Coca-Cola found itself besieged for years by imitators, like Koca Nola, of its now-iconic script logo, signature red, and alliterative name. But the industry has been seeing drastic changes, as consumers’ health concerns and desires for greater quality and variety have made it far less monolithic. The number of beverages available for purchase has skyrocketed; the Coca-Cola Company alone introduced 500 new drinks in 2017.

Consumer choice notwithstanding, this explosion of new products has also resulted in a dizzying assortment of increasingly ridiculous new drink offerings, including alcoholic seltzer water infused with antioxidant vitamin C, mineral water for babies, and, introduced by PepsiCo the same week as Driftwell, a Mountain Dew–flavored margarita to be quaffed exclusively at Red Lobster restaurants.

The move toward diversification in beverages has meant that the old top-down model of copycatting has been flipped, as the industry’s titans, desperate to hold onto market share, scour the backwaters of the drink economy in search of product ideas to make their own.

Many of these new potables, like Driftwell and Recess, inhabit what those in the business call the “functional beverage space,” an industry now worth $125 billion, as they contain special ingredients that are linked, perhaps dubiously, to various health benefits. In this sense, they are a part of a long tradition in the beverage industry—after all, both Coke and Pepsi were concocted by pharmacists, the former as a cocaine-enhanced morphine replacement and the latter, originally branded “Brad’s Drink,” as a digestion aid.

The move toward diversification in beverages has meant that the old top-down model of copycatting has been flipped, as the industry’s titans, desperate to hold onto market share, scour the backwaters of the drink economy in search of product ideas to make their own. This process resembles a modern version of what sociologist Mark Gottdiener in 1985 called the “producer/object stage of mass cultural semiosis,” in which companies attempt to co-opt ideas from the culture at large and water them down to make them more palatable to a mainstream audience.

Companies often had to rely on “coolhunters,” commercial anthropologists of sorts, to alert them to cultural trends they might exploit in the marketplace. One such effort came in 1993, as Coke’s clumsy reading of the cultural landscape led it to try to bottle Gen X disaffection in the form of OK Soda, which was enhanced not with any medicinal additive, but simply with irony, through an elaborate marketing campaign.

The slackers didn’t buy it.

Social media has made it easier for the big producers to keep up with not just what the cool kids are doing, and the big guys have gotten better at appropriating the little guys’ cool. For example, big beer makers have, through imitation and acquisition, made themselves look more like craft breweries in a process that sociologist Philip H. Howard calls “craftwashing.” Anheuser-Busch has aggressively pursued this strategy, buying out little guys like Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery and creating in-house craft lookalikes such as Shock Top.

Driftwell’s branding seems to have accomplished its mission, the jibes of its online detractors notwithstanding. The “drift” component of the name manages to connote the promise of sleep, the FDA’s prohibitions be damned. “Drift” has increased enough in U.S. trademarks in recent years to suggest that the brand is somewhat “with-it,” and the kinship with the name of popular cool-kid drink Spindrift helps as well.

The name’s “-well” ending is also on trend, having almost tripled among U.S. trademarks since 2000, yet still uncommon enough to seem somewhat fresh. The stars of this category — Madewell and S’well — impart some degree of cool by association.

Driftwell’s moon-in-the-sea logo is simple yet striking and manages to convey both a general sense of calm and a depiction of an eye closing as sleep sets in. It is as if the high-energy, overcaffeinated Pepsi logo was finally able to settle in for the night, a yellow eyelid descending to leave only a tiny bit of its lower blue segment visible as the L-theanine works its (purported) magic.

Pepsi, then, has done a good job of borrowing from its nimbler and often smaller competitors. In doing so, though, it has followed the path that Gottdiener outlined, making both the product and its branding less radical and more mainstream. Compared to Recess, Driftwell will contain more mundane additives (magnesium instead of hemp extract), have no fizz, come in only one flavor (not six), and be priced relatively more affordably ($1.79 per 7.5-ounce can). Driftwell’s branding is following a safe, well-worn path in terms of name and logo and has steered clear of some of Recess’ excesses, such as assigning wacky personalities to each of its product flavors. Pepsi has, appropriately enough here, taken a competitor’s novel approach and watered it down for mass consumption.

Principal at Emblemetric, Sociologist at Northern Arizona University. Data-driven reporting on trends in logo design: Emblemetric.com