The Doctor Is In

Dr Pepper takes the number two soda spot
Dr Pepper Ties Pepsi as America’s No. 2 Soda
After decades as a distant contender, Dr Pepper has climbed the ranks with help from hefty marketing, novel flavors and TikTok videos

As a kid, I wasn't in the Pepsi or Coke camp (I liked both about the same), I was fully in the Dr Pepper camp. It was different, sort of weird, like me. One New Year's Eve I drank so much of it that I got pretty ill and was worried I would have to go to the hospital. Those were different times. As are these, apparently!

There is a new contender in the cola wars, and it isn’t a cola. It’s Dr Pepper.

The 139-year-old soda brand is now tied with Pepsi-Cola as the No. 2 carbonated soft drink brand in America behind Coke. The regular versions of Pepsi and Dr Pepper are neck and neck in a spot that Pepsi has held nearly every year for the past four decades, according to sales-volume data from Beverage Digest. 

That is wild to me. To be clear, this doesn't include all the auxiliary brands, so Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Coke Zero, etc, are separate drinks here. It's just straight up the main Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi vs. Dr Pepper. Still. As you can see in the chart below, things have changed. Largely in how far Pepsi has fallen. Coke, which has been pretty steady over the years, is now double the market share of any of its rivals.

Also, for all my love of Dr Pepper in my youth, I never realized:

Dr Pepper is one of the oldest soda brands in the U.S.—older than Coca-Cola or Pepsi. It was invented in 1885 by Charles Alderton, a young pharmacist and soda-fountain operator who wanted a drink that evoked the aroma of the drugstore where he worked in Waco, Texas.

His syrup concoction combined 23 flavors, including cherry and vanilla, along with other fruits and spices. Coca-Cola was invented a year later, followed by Pepsi-Cola in the 1890s.

I always associated it with peppers simply because of the name, obviously. I thought maybe it tasted a little "spicy". But really, I should have been focused on the "Dr" part,1 clearly – gotta love any drink that attempts to evoke the "aroma of the drugstore". Again, it was and is a weird drink. Not quite Mr. Pibb weird, but weird.

Anyway, how as Dr Pepper pulled off this feat? Beyond the fall of Pepsi, it was a really smart "Switzerland" maneuver:

The $97 billion U.S. soft drink market is largely organized into red and blue camps, representing the packaging colors of Coke and Pepsi. Each has its own distribution network, and each competes for national restaurant chains like McDonald’s and Wendy’s.

Dr Pepper, which is owned by Keurig Dr Pepper, has alliances with both sides. Whether you encounter a soda fountain with Coke brands or Pepsi brands, it probably has Dr Pepper on it, too.

They've taken second place by not engaging in the "war". It makes you wonder if other companies shouldn't employ a similar strategy when trying to go against an entrenched duopoly. Let them fight it out and be ready when one falters.

Coca-Cola emerged as the most popular fountain drink, while Dr Pepper retained a stronghold in the Southern states. The cola wars began in the 1960s, when PepsiCo launched its Pepsi Generation campaign. It cast Pepsi as the hip, upstart cola for young people and Coke as staid and old-fashioned.

This was countered by a certain Coca-Cola ad campaign that, while perhaps not really created by Don Draper, was no less effective.2 And so:

Pepsi didn’t catch Coke, but it reached a close second. Pepsi-Cola has held the No. 2 spot nearly every year since 1985, when Beverage Digest began collecting data, except for a stretch from 2010 to 2013, when Diet Coke unseated regular Pepsi to grab second place.

At first I was sort of surprised to see Diet Coke fall here after rising through the 2000s – and yes, overtaking Pepsi for a time – but it also makes sense with the fears around aspartame and the new rise of Coke Zero (which uses a blend of fake sugars). Since moving to Europe last year, I've been traveling around a fair amount and it's pretty incredible how Coke Zero dominates over here. You basically don't see Diet Coke anywhere here, anymore. Same is true with Diet Pepsi versus Pepsi Max, but to a much lesser extent. It's Coke Zero everywhere – to the point where I'm surprised it's not on the chart (yet?).3

Also unsurprising, TikTok has apparently been helping in Dr Pepper's ascendence, as it's big with Gen Z:

On TikTok, viral videos show young people filling Stanley Quencher cups with ice and Dr Pepper. They also show such concoctions as Dr Pepper with pickles and the Dirty Dr Pepper, a mix of Dr Pepper, lime juice, coconut-flavored coffee creamer and optional liquor. The brand riffed on this idea and introduced a canned, nonalcoholic version called Dr Pepper Creamy Coconut.

That sounds absolutely disgusting. Then again, I once filled a CamelBak backpack with Dr Pepper to take out for a nice hot day of caddying. The end result of that was arguably more gross than any of the above.

1 While I kept making the error in writing this, it's officially "Dr Pepper" without the '.' after 'Dr'. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Mr. Pibb does have the '.' -- though it's moot now since it's been rebranded to "Pibb Xtra", yuck (created by Coca-Cola to combat Dr Pepper, of course -- which later sued Coca-Cola, making them change the name from the original "Peppo").

2 While I liked the finale of Mad Men, I still wish they had either tried to tie the end to the opening of the show, with Don Draper perhaps plummeting to his death out of a Madison Avenue high-rise window. Did he jump? Was he pushed?! The ending would have been there, the whole time, staring at us in the face. Alternatively, the notion that Don could have been D.B. Cooper all along (suit and all) would have been perhaps too wild, but nontheless amazing. Don adopts the new name of one Bert Cooper -- D.B. Cooper, get it? -- hijacks a plane before vanishing into eternity -- did he jump? Was he pushed?! -- with a briefcase full of money.

3 To be clear, I no longer really drink soda, and certainly not the full-sugar variety. If I have anything now, it's a Coke Zero from time to time in between coffees for the caffeine. But if I'm at a movie theater that has Dr. Pepper, occasionally I'll still get one to relive my youth.