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University Communications and Marketing

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Pepsi executive Hugh Johnston speaks at UNCP

Speaking on a Pepsi campus in the state that is the birthplace to the legendary soft drink, Pepsi-Cola’s North America President Hugh Johnston felt at home speaking at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Hugh JohnstonAs part of the 9th annual Distinguished Speaker Series, Johnston discussed the history of Pepsi marketing with an audience of about 500 in the Givens Performing Arts Center on February 4.

“This is about the making and sustaining of an American icon,” he said. “Pepsi has been a champion of change in our 100-year history.

“Pepsi may be refreshing, but nobody really needs it,” Johnston said. “You have to go out and sell it every day.

“What we need is an image that reflects the spirit of American optimism,” he said. “Forever young - that’s how we feel as a company.”

Answering a question about the new logo, Johnston said the old one was a “wave” and the new image a “smile that represents optimism.”

Youth and optimism in a tough economy are the Pepsi formula, and the marketing of the soft drink has been a youthful affair since its beginning.

“There is no better time to embrace optimism than now,” he said. “Every new generation refreshes our world. Pepsi wants to champion an experience of youthful exuberance.”

There were many Pepsi fans in the audience, and Johnston showed his appreciation.

“Nationally, we are just about even with Coke, but in North Carolina, thanks to you, we are just ahead,” he said. “We owe a lot to North Carolina and our bottlers here.”

There is a lot of company history in North Carolina. Pepsi was invented in New Bern, and Mountain Dew was purchased from a Lumberton family.

In answer to the classic Coke-Pepsi rivalry, Johnston said, “we watch Coke on a molecular level.”

Coke and Pepsi compete for UNCP’s business too, and Pepsi recently won exclusive vending rights.

“But we don’t copy them,” Johnston said of Coke. “We have our own playbook.”

Hugh JohnstonAnswering a question about Pepsi’s financial performance in a sagging economy, Johnston said it is “rock solid.”

“Even in down times, people eat and drink,” he continued. “We’ll focus on value.

“We’re fortunate that it does not hit us as hard as other companies,” Johnston said. “We did have 3,000 layoffs in the last quarter, so it’s clear we manage our company very closely.”

Pepsi is a global brand that markets its products in 200 countries with a workforce of 168,000. Besides its flagship cola, Pepsi markets 18 “megabrands,” each with sales of more than a billion dollars annually, including Gatorade, Lipton iced tea and Aquafina water as well as snacks and foods like Frito Lay and Quaker Oats.

Health and the environment are in Pepsi’s game plan too, Johnston said.

“We try to get America up on its feet,” he said. “We believe, like most scientists, that energy balance is the solution to obesity.”

The Pepsi boss said the company’s extensive environmental goals are to use less water and energy and more recycled packaging materials.

 “We want to be solid corporate citizens, to drive performance with a purpose,” he said

On a personal level, Johnston, who earned a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Chicago, said “resilience” is an important trait for success in business.

“You have to learn to forget; that’s the best thing,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have some great bosses who taught me a lot.

“Have I been lucky?” he asked, “without a doubt.

“Working hard and trying to do the right thing are most important,” Johnston concluded.

The Distinguished Speaker Series continues on February 24 with Louis Gossett Jr. and on March 17 with Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie.

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