One of the best ways to navigate a two-horse race? Being the third horse

How Dr Pepper succeeded by playing third wheel to Coke and Pepsi.

The long-running “Cola Wars” between Coca-Cola and PepsiCo has been called “a blood feud” and labeled “the most important struggle in the history of capitalism.”

Trophies with soda brand logos on them sit on a trophy stand: Coca-Cola is first, Dr Pepper is second, and PepsiCo is third.

The clash has always packed a delicious level of pettiness: lawsuits galore, cheap-shot ads, and refusals to refer to the competition by name.

Alas, it’s not really a clash anymore: Not only does Coca-Cola hold a market share over 2x greater than any competition, Pepsi isn’t even the clear second-place soda anymore.

Enter Dr Pepper

Back in 2004, Dr Pepper was America’s sixth-favorite soda. Coming into 2024, the brand narrowly leapfrogged Pepsi for the No. 2 spot.

Dr Pepper’s comeback can be credited to a smart, modern playbook, per The Wall Street Journal:

  • It embraced the youths: It’s the fastest-growing pop brand among Gen Zers, thanks in part to its novel flavor additions. Dark berry and strawberries-and-cream flavors are part of its permanent lineup, and its new creamy coconut variant (which “doesn’t taste like suntan lotion,” BTW) is taking off.
  • It’s not acting like a 139-year-old brand: Dr Pepper rolled with one gross-sounding TikTok sensation (putting pickles in Dr Pepper) and got playful with another viral moment — when TikTokers spread a rumor about the soda being discontinued.
  • It played up its sweetness: Noticing changes in consumption habits, Dr Pepper started marketing itself more as an indulgence; if the average soda drinker now only treats themselves to a can every so often, they’re more likely to make it a Dr Pepper.

There’s one more secret to its success

As Coke and Pepsi have battled out exclusive distribution deals with national dining chains — for example, Pepsi just wrested away Subway, Coke’s biggest account — Dr Pepper played nice with the competition.

The result: Both Coke and Pepsi fountains distribute Dr Pepper, and the drink is found on more US soda fountains than any other soft drink.

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