How does grape soda communicate?

This meme crossed my social media path a few weeks ago, asking me which brand of grape soda I preferred. Purple cans, grape soda, they’re all the same, right? No way! For every respondent, the memory of syrupy purple goodness elicited by the image of these cans brought up childhood memories and elicited a variety of “votes” for various favorites.

But for people in marketing, every can said something. This is what I heard as these cans spoke to me:

Fanta: “Yay, it’s the summer of 1979!”
C&C: “We are in the generic vending machine and we’ll do.”
Crush: “We are classic, you know us. We’ve been friends forever. Let’s go surfing now, dude.”
Grapico: “We are fancy and might be from Europe, where grapes are more expensive.”
Sunkist: “We are fancier than Fanta, and curlier, and maybe a little high.”
Faygo: “We are a lot high.”
Welch’s: “We have never been high in our lives and this grape soda is nutritious. Now get off our lawn, Faygo!”

Now, expressing this in my own social media post immediately led to push back from Michiganders I knew (one of whom is Imagine’s director of account services, Nadia Zerka), who were confused and even a touch annoyed that their beloved hometown brand of Faygo brought up thoughts of illicit drug use. They were blissfully unaware that, on the national scene, Faygo has become a familiar accessory for the juggalo crowd, the raucous festival-going fans of the Insane Clown Posse — a group that also originates from Detroit, Michigan. When a Michigan-dwelling friend expressed disbelief that Faygo has become primarily known for this, I responded with the first GIF that popped up when “Faygo” was typed in the search bar. It was, of course, a face-painted juggalo chugging a 2-liter of grape Faygo. Indeed, the top characteristic listed on Wikipedia entry for juggalos is “Drinking and spraying the inexpensive soft drink Faygo.”

My friend responded with a few curse words of resignation. I suppose it’s a mixed blessing for a brand when it gets adopted and popularized as a favorite by a particularly unique and visible crowd.

But how do these innocent purple cans convey such varied messages? Font and graphics work together to project a tone, and most of these cans feature long-lived logos that rely on our memories and associations of the drink. Even Welch’s, which has obviously updated its can design, harkens back to its original form by retaining a similar font.

In fact, the blocky sans-serif on that can was in my memory as meaning Welch’s grape soda, specifically, not the other types of products Welch’s offers, like jelly or juice. Sure enough, an image search showed me that those products have the less blocky, scripty-type serif logo with over a banner graphic. But Welch’s grape soda? That’s had a blocky font like this one since 1976 (albeit with a different apostrophe). That’s not something I ever studied or consciously took note of, it was just programmed into my childhood as a visual association.

Grape soda is a particularly good example to look at feelings that branding elicits because 1) taste/smell memories are extremely strong and stick with us a long, long time, and 2) unlike your average cola or ginger ale, grape soda is a somewhat rare treat — many of us have only had it a handful of times, and so our mind goes right to the feeling of being at a pool party in our tweens, or a summer camp, or family picnic where we may have enjoyed it last.

The responses showed how consumers can really bond with a brand, as posts exclaimed how superior their favorite purple fizzy drink was to all the lesser brands (note the passion I mentioned from Michiganders above). And simply being able to identify your favorite brand in comments led to reinforcement, the same way that donning a t-shirt for a sports team makes you feel like even more of a fan.

Conspicuous in its absence was grape Nehi, which led to frustrated pushback on the meme, along with GIFs of sweet, innocent Radar O’Reilly — the absolute other side of the spectrum to the fan association that Faygo ended up with!

So, while it might be challenging to tell these sodas apart in a blind taste test, are they “all the same”? You bet your branding they aren’t.

Celestia Ward, Imagine’s public relations coordinator, is an editor, cartoonist and illustrator who has had a lifelong interest in how pictures and words communicate ideas and feelings. Her favorite grape soda is Welch’s — and she will fight you on that.

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