North Carolina and Pepsi-Cola have a special relationship — a mutual admiration society, if you will. North Carolinians shamelessly boast that Pepsi belongs to us — it was invented here, after all. And when you look at the commemorative bottles — and cans, for that matter — paying tribute to the Old North State and some of its claims to fame, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Pepsi’s independent bottling companies across North Carolina have been moonlighting as promoters of the state.
For generations, Pepsi bottlers have produced a variety of these limited-edition keepsakes. The best-known is probably a set of Pepsi longnecks dedicated to NASCAR legend and Randolph County native Richard Petty. Each bottle features a depiction of The King — wearing his signature cowboy hat and sunglasses — and his notable career milestones, from his first Winston Cup victory (February 28, 1960, at the Charlotte Fairgrounds) to his 1,000th career start (June 15, 1986, at Michigan International Speedway), from his record for most wins in a single season (27 in 1967) to being named NASCAR’s most popular driver nine times by the sport’s fans.
“Those bottles are nationwide collectibles,” says Pepsi memorabilia enthusiast and amateur historian Jerry Avery, who lives in Craven County, where Pepsi was founded. “But they originated in North Carolina because of Richard Petty. He’s a North Carolina guy.”
Distributed in 1992, during Petty’s final season as he embarked on a yearlong fan-appreciation tour, the bottles were sought by collectors and NASCAR fans alike, and — compared to other commemorative Pepsi bottles — are now relatively easy to find at antiques stores and flea markets.
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Commerative bottles such as the Petty series have sentimental value for consumers who may or may not live in North Carolina, as well as those who simply love the Tar Heel State. The bottles tap into not only the nostalgia of one of our favorite homegrown products but also the love we have for — in this case — one of our favorite sons.
From a business standpoint, the collectible bottles were a boon to the brand. They acknowledged people’s desire to celebrate their home state and what it represents to them — which, in turn, helped promote North Carolina.
“States have reputations, and equity as well, so it builds the state’s reputation by emphasizing positive things,” says Cynthia Hanson, an associate professor of marketing at High Point University. “It contributes to good feelings about the state and helps build state pride.”
Before Pepsi-Cola bottles celebrating North Carolina icons — from The King of NASCAR to our official state motto — graced grocers’ shelves. photograph by Matt Hulsman
In the mid-1970s, Pepsi commemorated North Carolina’s bicentennial with a keepsake bottle featuring the state flag, the state seal, and the state motto. Another bottle celebrated New Bern as the birthplace of Pepsi with a nod to pharmacist Caleb Bradham, who invented Pepsi in the 1890s. Yet another bottle, produced in 1980, highlighted the 75th anniversary of a specific Pepsi bottling company, Pepsi-Cola of Charlotte, and included the tribute “Charlotte: Someplace Special.” In 1984, a bottle commemorated the opening of a new Pepsi bottling facility in Winston-Salem.
Mountain Dew, which is owned by PepsiCo, also has touted the Tar Heel State. In 1979, a longneck bottle commemorating the Southern Flue-Cured Tobacco Festival — an annual event held in Greenville — hit store shelves, complete with an image of a tobacco plant on its side.
“Like all the others, that was done by an independent bottler, [in this case] the Minges family,” Avery says, alluding to the Minges Bottling Group in Ayden. “That’s why the Mountain Dew bottle with the tobacco leaf was only in eastern North Carolina — the bottler did that because it wanted to celebrate something in that part of the state.”
The original Pepsi was served at Bradham’s Pharmacy in New Bern, The Birthplace of Pepsi. photograph by VisitNC.com
The most unorthodox souvenir Pepsi bottle may have been one produced in 1988 that featured an image of Ramesses II, an Egyptian pharaoh. What was the connection between a pharaoh and North Carolina? Well, the bottle actually supported the opening of a traveling exhibition called “Ramesses the Great” — at that time the largest exhibition ever mounted by The Mint Museum in Charlotte.
“Everything hinged on the bottlers and what they wanted to promote,” Avery explains. And Charlotte’s independent bottling company wanted to promote Ramesses II.
“I’m sure the bottlers were doing it to basically say, ‘We recognize that we’re in North Carolina, and we recognize the importance of Pepsi-Cola beginning here in North Carolina,’ ” he says. “And, especially with the bicentennial bottle and the one celebrating the birthplace of Pepsi, they were definitely promoting North Carolina and what it meant to be a part of such a rich history.”
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