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Sun 13 Nov 2005 04:00 AM

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Helping to put a smile on the face of PepsiCo

Richard Evans oversees the Middle East's most heavily advertised brand. Richard Abbott meets the man from Pepsi

Helping to put a smile on the face of PepsiCo|~|Evans,-Richard200.jpg|~|Richard Evens, commercial VP, PepsiCo Middle East and Africa|~|“That is 100% corn,” says Richard Evans, plucking a packet of Cheetos snacks from a shelf bulging with crisps and soft drinks.

We are not in a supermarket, but in the office of PepsiCo’s commercial vice-president for the Middle East and Africa. The branded merchandise on display would not look out of place in Carrefour.

“I have 56 countries in my portfolio, of which 22 are on the UN’s malnutrition list. So there is a need for value, healthily produced products,” he says.

Whether the likes of Pepsi and Cheetos are healthy or not is a moot point, but there is no doubting the size of PepsiCo’s business in this region.

In the GCC and Levant, Pepsi was the single biggest spending brand in the 12 months to September 2005, with an estimated US$59.6 million, according to figures from Ipsos-Stat. Pepsi outspent Coke by 84% across the GCC and Levant in the same period.

Unlike other markets around the world, Pepsi rules the fizzy drink wars in the Middle East. Why is that? “For the same reason that Coke is the leader in most of Europe. It achieved that because it got their first,” says Evans.

This follows two decades where Coke was not available in the region because it was considered to have links with Israel.

Evans is keen to play down talk of a bitter rivalry between the two brands, instead choosing to focus on his own marketing strategy. But recent claims from the red camp that it will be the number one brand “within the next few years” will have not escaped his attention.

“It is very easy to get into marketing speak,” he says. “We both recognize each other as professional companies. We watch them very closely. You have to ask what it is they think they can do. I don’t sit on my laurels.”

“But in this part of the world they are not our primary focus. I am more concerned about other beverages. Like milk.”

Milk? Apparently so. The white stuff is seeing major growth in the Middle East, and is challenging Pepsi’s position at the mealtime table. Juices are also growing fact, but PepsiCo has that one covered through its Tropicana brand.

Evans uses the word ‘adoration’ to describe the consumer relationship with Pepsi. He also highlights the low cost of the drink: “There is nowhere in the world that offers Pepsi at such good value.”

Of late, both companies have turned to regional pop stars in a bid to boost their brands.While Coke uses Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram, Pepsi utilizes the services of Egyptian singer Amr Diab.

A giant poster featuring Diab, flanked by global superstars Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez, is on the wall outside Evans’ office. It clearly demonstrates a point Evans makes about how the company takes global campaigns and gives them a local angle.

“We are very focused on leveraging football and music platforms,” he says. “We understand from consumers who they are listening to.” But he is concerned about the next generation of young brand ambassadors in the region: “It would be a challenge to find another artist like Amr Diab.”

Evans’ runs consumer targeting strategies for Pepsi’s snacks and beverages business across a territory that stretches from the Middle East down to South Africa. He describes his job as “bringing the insights that we have to retailers.

But does he like Pepsi? “Yes, I like Pepsi,” he says, slightly taken aback. Just checking – it may be the Middle East’s biggest selling soft drink, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

Following a business degree, Evans arrived at PepsiCo in 1990 following stints with 3M and Trivial Pursuit. Over the next decade he worked in various marketing and commercial roles across Europe and the Middle East, before leaving in 2000 to work on the launch of internet portal Arabia.com.However, the website did not survive the online boom and bust - and Evans found himself back at Pepsi.

“It was a good learning experience, but, like most regional portals, we couldn’t compete against Microsoft and Yahoo,” he says of his brief foray into dotcom.

Today, Evans is dressed smart casual in a polo shirt. His office, over the road from Dubai’s BurJuman Centre, is packed with gadgets, which he admits he is a little obsessed with.

He produces a tablet PC that recognises handwriting and turns it into text. Very useful. And he explains enthusiastically how his house is a wi-fi zone. So it comes as no surprise that he is a keen advocate of online and mobile phone advertising.

But Evans is at his most vocal when it comes to media in the Middle East. He recently vented his exasperation at an Economist-sponsored conference, saying that words failed him on the subject.

“Firstly, we have no real objective data from third parties that gives us a currency from which we can trade,” he says.

But his real bugbear is the concentration of sales points, where he alludes to the power of the Choueiri Group, which controls a large chunk of the media marketplace.“We are all buying from a single entity. That is clearly not helpful from a supplier’s point of view,” he says.

“It diminishes competition and it certainly won’t lower prices. Based on evidence from around the world, it will only get more expensive without competition. We don’t want price inflation when audiences are diminishing and fragmenting.

“My only hope is that the media owners ask why one person is representing all of them.”And he believes the region will not be able to grow unless a radical rethink occurs.

“You can either be controlling and say ‘I won’t give you any data’ or you can provide evidence of return on investment and get people to invest more,” he says.“We are in a doom loop.

“Everyone in business wants to be a monopoly player. But we have absolute evidence of what happens. In South Africa, Coke has a monopoly that has resulted in the slowest growing market in the world.”

But despite his obvious frustration, it is unlikely that we will see Pepsi retreating from advertising in the near future.

“There is no other way that we could deliver and build our brands without the advertising part of our business. I think our ads are entertaining.“At the end of the day, we put a smile on people’s face.”||**||

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