Donald Kendall added marketing sparkle to the soft-drinks industry
“Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it any more!” cried Billy Joel in his chart-topping song from 1989, “We didn’t start the fire”. He had had enough of the intense marketing battle between America’s fizzy-drinks behemoths. As the underdog, PepsiCo had stunned its bigger rival, Coca- Cola, by signing Michael Jackson, the era’s biggest musical star, to promote its brand in a record-setting $5m deal.
The cola wars became a cultural phenomenon. Credit for that goes to Donald Kendall, PepsiCo’s legendary former boss, who died on September 19th aged 99. A gifted salesman, he rose quickly through the ranks from his start on the bottling line to become the firm’s top sales and marketing executive at the tender age of 35. Seven years later he was named CEO. In 1974 he injected a dose of fizzy capitalism into the Soviet Union, which allowed Pepsi to become the first Western product to be legally sold behind the iron curtain. By the time he stepped down as boss in 1986, PepsiCo’s sales had shot up nearly 40-fold, to $7.6bn. His legacy continues to shape the industry.
Mr Kendall offered a mix of strategic vision, principled leadership and marketing flair. Two years after taking charge he acquired Frito-Lay, a leading purveyor of snacks, giving PepsiCo an advantage from diversification that persists to this day. PepsiCo’s revenues last year of $67bn dwarfed Coca-Cola’s $37bn in sales. Decades before Black Lives Matter he named African-Americans to top jobs, making PepsiCo the first big American firm to do so—staring down racists including the Ku Klux Klan, which organised a boycott.