Can Pepsi Beat Coke? How Marketing Missteps Have Shaped Soda Brands
Ask a person if they’re a Coke or Pepsi drinker and you won’t have to wait more than a half of a second to hear the answer. The type of cola a person drinks seems to be as much a part of their identity as the kind of car they drive or the type of music they listen to most. And time and time again, the majority rules in favor of Coke: It’s been America’s cola kingpin for decades. Can Pepsi ever make a marketing move big enough to claim the top spot? A look into the past efforts of both brands highlights where Pepsi may have done permanent damage:
Pepsi was late to the game, to be sure. By the time the Pepsi recipe was developed and ready for mass consumption, Coke was already selling a million gallons of their cola in the early 1900s. The jump on the cola market would prove to be an important factor of popularity, allowing Coca-Cola to corner the nostalgia market.
Both colas remained fairly popular up until World War II. Despite Pepsi coming up with the idea to distribute in a can, Coke became a symbol of patriotism as the favorite drink of U.S. troops. Back at home, Pepsi struggled to keep its footing in a country that seemed destined for Coke.
There was a glimmer of hope, however, when Pepsi conducted a marketing campaign based around blind taste tests in the 80s. Traveling across the country, Pepsi challenged soda drinkers to try both colas and decide, without seeing which was which, on their favorite formula. Pepsi came out on top, causing Coca-Cola to rethink their formula and come out with New Coke–the brand’s most notorious flop.
On the heels of triumph, Pepsi launched an all-out assault on Coca-Cola, poking fun at its traditionalist spirit. While Coca-Cola floundered during the New Coke backlash, Pepsi was representing the new generation of cola drinkers, complete with young celebrity spokespeople and snappy slogans like “Pepsi: The Choice of a New Generation” and “A Generation Ahead.”
Once Coca-Cola went back to Coke Classic and regained its bearings, however, trouble began brewing for its competition. First, the celeb spokespeople chosen to represent the brand began to attract negative press. Pepsi’s biggest endorser, Michael Jackson, was in the midst of a scandalous lawsuit. He was also burned on the set of a Pepsi commercial, leaving him dependent on painkillers. Madonna was also chosen to rep the brand, but “Like a Prayer” was used for a Pepsi commercial and was denounced as blasphemous by the Catholic Church. Campaigns that were meant to portray Pepsi as “young” and “fun” were instead, coming off as blasé and dangerous.
The marketing woes kept coming as Pepsi trailed behind throughout the 90s and into the early 2000s. Introducing a “skinny can” at the 2011 New York Fashion Week made the brand look thoughtless and a commercial in which a black woman threw a Pepsi can at her boyfriend came off as racially insensitive. Even when Pepsi opted to face Coke head-on, they lost: An anti-Coke ad in 2011 touting Pepsi as the soda of summer featured the iconic red can more than it did Pepsi itself.
The nail in the coffin, however, wasn’t a marketing misstep from Pepsi, but a brand-slam from Coke: The 2014 to 2015 “Share a Coke” campaign, in which individual’s names were printed on every can or bottle, was a massive hit. The campaign was so significant that it essentially turned around a 1-year decline in Coke sales (driven by a nationwide preoccupation with healthier eating). The packaging became collectible, with buyers digging through coolers and even searching eBay for their names–and even the names of their family members.
Brad Jakeman, the chief creative officer for Pepsi, inadvertently said it best when he admitted “Coke is timeless. Pepsi is timely.” His aim was to highlight that Pepsi was about staying in the moment; a lighthearted and fun alternative to the stodgy-in-comparison Coke. But instead, he highlights exactly why Pepsi won’t overtake Coke as America’s favorite cola: A person’s cola preference isn’t decided upon in the moment. Instead, it’s the culmination of generations of cola drinkers, identity, and an appreciation of the familiar. Coke also seems to be ahead on the social media front, as evidenced by their recent Coke Tweet machine experiment.
Until Pepsi can find a way to become truly timeless and less spontaneous, its slogan might as well be the same sentence that means dismay to Coke drinkers the world over: “Is Pepsi OK?”