Super Bowl sponsor Pepsi paints Atlanta skyline blue as Coke sidelined

Among the indignities? Pepsi-Cola to flow at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

The Atlanta Falcons won’t be in the Super Bowl. Neither will Coca-Cola.

The hometown beverage giant isn’t an official sponsor of the National Football League or the big game, unlike arch-rival PepsiCo. That’s leading to a few indignities for Coke, which is used to painting this town red.

Such as all the big, bright, blue Pepsi ads going up around Coke’s favorite haunts. Or plans to cover logos on Coke’s coolers and fountain machines at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium while the Super Bowl is being played there. Bottled Cokes will be banned inside, though its fountain drinks will still be available, just in Super Bowl-labeled cups. The company’s Dasani bottled water will be served - after their labels have been stripped off.

PepsiCo, a paying NFL sponsor since 2002, for the first time will get to serve its namesake cola in the stadium where Coke normally holds licensing rights.

Coke isn’t alone in facing marketing one-upmanship when the NFL brings its biggest party of the year to Atlanta on Feb. 3.

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Many of Georgia’s big corporate citizens helped the city and the local host committee prep for the gathering, but they aren’t the NFL’s Super Bowl sponsors. Not Coke, UPS, Chick-fil-A, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Holiday Inn parent IHG or mattress company Serta Simmons. Their big out-of-town rivals are, though, from FedEx to McDonald’s, Ford, Marriott and Sleep Number.

FedEx plans to outfit local courier vans with Super Bowl images and provide free admission at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights on the Saturday before the game. Fedex senior vice president Patrick Fitzgerald said the company, a longtime Super Bowl sponsor, isn’t doing anything differently because UPS happens to be based here.

Pepsi and Coke, though, have an especially deep history of needling each other and getting attention for it. That includes TV spots decades ago about blind taste tests between the brands. Or ads portraying employees secretly enjoying their rival’s drinks.

With the Super Bowl headed for Atlanta, some of Georgia’s big companies face their biggest rivals having a marketing advantage as official sponsors of the game, allowed to use the Super Bowl and NFL trademarks. Outside the World of Coke in downtown Atlanta, Coca-Cola Co. (not an official Super Bowl sponsor) is already getting ribbed by PepsiCo, an official sponsor. MATT KEMPNER / AJC (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

With lots of time still before Super Bowl 53, the rivalry is getting a fresh jolt.

The NFL has created a sprawling, oddly shaped “clean zone” around the stadium in hopes of preventing new advertising by any entities other than the NFL and its sponsors.

Coke’s worldwide headquarters tower, more than a mile from the venue, sits just inside the zone. So does the closer-in, 45,000-square-foot World of Coca-Cola, with its giant Coke bottle cap out front, exterior soundtrack of a Coke being opened and a giant multi-hued version of the company’s iconic curved bottle.

Pepsi has unleashed a blue wave. Around Centennial Olympic Park are fresh Pepsi billboards, a new multi-story sign across from the World of Coca-Cola and city trash and recycling cans emblazoned with logos of the Purchase, NY-based company’s namesake drink. One of the ad messages: “Pepsi in Atlanta. How refreshing.”

Steven Kenney, who lives in a downtown condo, was struck by the roll out.

“They’ve got Pepsi on everything,” he said.

“Atlanta is pretty much a Coke town. Coke, Coke, Coke,” he said, so Pepsi executives “are probably enjoying it.”

Coca-Cola’s famous script shares billing on the sign for Just Around the Corner grill inside the clean zone. New Pepsi billboards loom nearby.

“It’s sad,” said Doris Burkes, the restaurant’s manager. “The Falcons are not in the Super Bowl, and everything is run by Pepsi.”

With the Super Bowl headed for Atlanta, none of Georgia’s big companies are official sponsors of the game, but some of their biggest rivals are. Coke isn’t, for example, but PepsiCo is. That surprised Deanna Winfield, a Coke fan and visitor from San Antonio, who recently visited the World of Coke in downtown Atlanta. MATT KEMPNER / AJC (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

She said her local Coke supplier plans to provide her with new sidewalk Coke signs before the big game. She scoffed at questions about whether the NFL might attempt to stop her. “They can’t.”

Just in time for the Super Bowl hoopla, the World of Coca-Cola added a football-themed exhibit and now offers “Game Day” drinks in a sampling area. For the Friday before the Super Bowl, the center has scheduled a public “Champions Chat” with three former NFL players, including “Mean” Joe Greene, who famously gave away his jersey to a kid in a Coke ad from 40 years ago.

Expect the beverage rivals to roll out far more marketing muscle in the days ahead as they rekindle the cola wars of old, said Duane Stanford, the executive editor of trade publication Beverage Digest.

“You can expect Pepsi to do some interesting stuff to ruffle Coke’s feathers and you can expect Coke to push back,” said Stanford. “There is no way Coke is going to sit back and say, ‘Oh, well, we aren’t the sponsor.’”

Neither company would disclose exactly what more they have planned.

“We are planning to be a very good host to everyone, Pepsi included,” said Coke spokeswoman Kate Hartman, declining to comment on how much Coke will spend on marketing around the game.

Pepsi vice president Todd Kaplan promised in an emailed statement that “Pepsi will be in full force in Atlanta.”

PepsiCo also has national TV spots slated to run during the game pitching Pepsi, Bubly sparkling water and Doritos snacks. Pepsi also is sponsoring the Super Bowl’s halftime show.

Coke has advertised during the last dozen Super Bowls. It has yet to disclose any TV plans for this year’s game.

Lots of companies are able to feed off the Super Bowl, whether or not they are official NFL sponsors. Advertisers spent $482 million in TV time for the game last year, with an average 30-second slot going for just over $5.2 million, according to Kantar Media.

Some Georgia companies have another way in: becoming official sponsors of the local host committee for the Super Bowl. Delta Air Lines is highlighting that connection on signs at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Other Atlanta-based companies will be sidelined as Super Bowl events crank up for business rivals, said Vince Thompson, the chief executive of Melt, a Buckhead-based sports marketing agency. “They do have a little bit of a grin and bear it that week.”

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