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What the Doctor Ordered: Dr Pepper’s latest ad campaign

A TV star helps sell Plano’s Dr Pepper with stylish perfection.
illustration by Kenneth Fallin

Quick, name a soft drink. Most people would respond, “Coke.” An only slightly smaller number would answer “Pepsi.” According to trade publication Beverage Digest, Coke, Pepsi, Diet Coke, and Diet Pepsi in 2007 accounted for 43 percent of sales of carbonated soft drinks, a category that also includes the Mountain Dews, Sprites, Big Reds, Red Bulls, and A&W’s of the world. It’s slowly changing, but colas remain top of mind and top of wallet in America. 

Then there’s Plano-based Dr Pepper, in sixth place with a very respectable 5.9 share of market and a product difference that has, historically, held it back from category dominance while simultaneously creating a cadre of loyalists. That difference is Dr Pepper’s taste: a blend, as its recent advertising tells us, of 23 flavors. Though it looks like a cola and is sold side by side with colas, Dr Pepper offers a much more complex experience and a taste that enthusiasts (and I confess to being one) find well worth acquiring.

Soft-drink advertising doesn’t lend itself to an ingredient story as easily as its beer-advertising cousin. While both categories and the experiences they depict are about refreshment, good times and, often, outright goofiness, beer also gives its marketers historical gravitas, tradition, and a complexity of recipe to work with. By virtue of its product difference, Dr Pepper is in a unique position to move into that territory, provided the brand doesn’t take itself too seriously in the process. Its current campaign—“Drink It Slow. Dr’s Orders”—squares this circle with stylish perfection by using popular “doctors” to tell its complex story.

Beginning with “Dr Frasier Crane.” Who better to counsel the complex virtues of slowly enjoying the blend of 23 flavors than a verbose, over-analytical shrink who is also a wine snob? For fans of the show Frasier (I confess to being one of those, too), the spot also provides a 30-second visit to a world that now exists only in reruns, one that is greatly missed. Actor Kelsey Grammer, looking only a bit older, pours himself a Dr Pepper amid a spot-on re-creation of his radio studio.

“Scientific tests,” he intones, “show that when one drinks Dr Pepper slowly, one can truly relish the 23 flavors. Would that we could savor all our relationships, much as the conductor savors his chorale nocturna. Slowly. …”

About those “scientific tests.” “We do a lot of consumer research,” says Andrew Springate, senior vice president of brand marketing for Dr Pepper Snapple Group. “Consumers have always considered Dr Pepper to be rich and indulgent and, when we drilled more deeply, one of the things we discovered is that the ‘light’ Dr Pepper user drinks it quickly, while the ‘heavy’ user drinks it a little slower.”

Out of such seemingly minor consumer insights, campaigns can be born, this one aimed at encouraging more of the brand’s loyal heavy users while attracting new customers in an entertaining way. By definition, heavy users buy more of your product, and for a brand with an acquired taste, a campaign that creates more loyalists is pure gold.

Back to Frasier. He smiles and punches his phone. “Comments, caller?” His face darkens and he snaps his pencil as the familiar woman’s voice bitchily replies, “Only one, Frasier. You never savored me slowly.” “Well, Lilith [the name etched in acid], I guess I finally found the right icy doctor.” Frasier punches the phone off and, pleased with his riposte, turns to the camera. “Slower is better. Trust me. I’m a doctor.” And, as we see a product shot and the lines “Drink it slow. Dr’s orders,” the triumphant tones of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro bring this rich and indulgent mini-sitcom to a close.

Ask anyone who’s been involved in the creation and realization of an ad and you’ll hear about a dozen times how the project could have gone south. Somehow, the project must be steered against the tides of timidity, through the straits of stupidity, and past the reefs of research. Rarely is an ad improved by its approval process. Make it a TV campaign and, through the sheer number of people involved, however well-intentioned they may be, the chances of capsizing multiply.

Finally, you’re ready to shoot. Woody Allen put it perfectly: “When I start out to make a film, when I’m in my bedroom writing it, I always think that this is gonna be the greatest film in the world, this is gonna be my Citizen Kane. And then I actually start to make the film and, as my friend Marshall Brickman says, the truck with compromises pulls up every day and, by the time I’m finished with the film and I start editing it, I just pray to God that I’m saved from humiliation.” 

So, imagine how hard it is to achieve the perfection of the Frasier Crane spot, a project in which entertainment is, at best, a secondary goal. This particular effort had an extra set of obstacles to overcome before it ever got to the soundstage. Ordinarily, when you use a celebrity, you call his or her agent and argue about money. Then a date is set and everyone shows up at the shoot. Obviously, Dr Pepper had to sign Kelsey Grammer and Bebe Neuwirth, who so memorably played his ex-wife Lilith. But these weren’t just performers; they were also characters from two separate TV shows. And to make it more complicated, the rights to these characters were owned by the creators of the show Cheers, while the context of Frasier’s radio show was in the hands of the creators of the show Frasier. Two actors, two characters, two shows. A million headaches.


Fine-tuning The Pitch

As it turned out, this was nothing that a lot of patience and money couldn’t solve. No one’s talking about the money but, according to Eric Hirshberg, co-president and chief creative officer of Dr Pepper’s agency, Deutsch, Los Angeles, “The negotiations were complicated because they involved two stars and two shows. Our business-affairs department worked hard on it, but overall, things went surprisingly smoothly.”

Then there was the writing. The character of Frasier Crane held forth on television for an astonishing 22 seasons, half on each of the two shows. Frasier brought home a record 37 Emmys. These shows were successful for a number of reasons, but they were driven by consistent and hysterically funny writing. For the Dr Pepper spot, Deutsch’s Rob Goldenberg is credited as copywriter, but he had a backstop. “We brought in veteran Frasier writer and producer Christopher Lloyd,” says Hirshberg. “He fine-tuned things to make certain that these were words that Frasier would have said and that Kelsey could deliver to maximum effect.”

And consider this: According to Dr Pepper’s Springate, the target of its advertising is more psychographic than demographic—“people looking to maximize every experience.” Demographically, Springate says, “we’re looking at the 18- to 34-year-old age group.” For all of its brilliance and success, Frasier ended its network run in 2004, and basketball legend Dr J [Julius Erving, star of a second spot in the series] ended his playing career in 1987. How can anyone be sure that these are the right people to carry a message to this audience?

“We really listen to our consumers,” Springate says, “and we test everything. Besides, these two had very high Q scores among the people we want to reach.” He’s right. According to Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Marketing Evaluations Inc., “a Q score is the percentage of people familiar with the personality who rate that person as one of their favorites, and these were good choices indeed.” Among general personalities, Grammer scored 71 in familiarity (against an average of 32) with a Q rating of 20 (against an average of 16). Among sports personalities, Dr  J had a familiarity score of 71 (against an average of 44) with a Q of 37 (against an average of 16).

“The campaign is doing extremely well,” Springate says, “and we expect to go with it for at least a year. We’ll be doing a number of pool outs [additional executions of the format] with additional ‘doctors.’ ” Although he won’t say which ersatz MDs the company is talking with, it’s kind of fun to guess: Dr John, the cast of Scrubs, Dr Ruth, Doc Holliday, Dr Henry Kissinger, Doc the Dwarf (Sneezy’s friend)? Anyone but Dr Phil, please.

In more than 35 years as a copywriter and creative director in New York and Dallas, Spencer Michlin has created advertising in all media for Pepsi, Frito-Lay, Ford, the brands of Proctor & Gamble, and many more. His work has won virtually every advertising award. He can be reached at [email protected].