Coke vs. Pepsi

By Andy Goldsmith, Vice President, Creative and Brand Strategy, American Cancer Society


Key Concepts:

1. Science is updating the classic "taste test."

2. Your brain connects brand imagery with brand preference, resulting in increased sales.


Is there anything left to say about the difference between Coke and Pepsi? As they continue to bludgeon each other for market share, their partisan supporters are split 50/50 in favor of one or another. In blind taste tests, it works out that way just about every time.

But some compelling research from Baylor College of Medicine highlights their differences in a novel way. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technology to monitor brain activity, researchers conducted a blind taste test among 67 subjects and sure enough, preference was split down the middle. Brain scans showed that the something called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex lights up when either brand was consumed. Since that part of the brain responds to rewards, and people were being asked to drink sugar water, no surprises there.

But when researchers then told people which cola they were drinking as they quaffed it, things got more interesting. In those “branded” taste tests, while still hooked up to the fMRI, Coke was preferred by 75% to 25%. Why? Yes Virginia, there is such as thing as brand imagery. Turns out that when people knew they were drinking Coke, things like the "dorsolateral prefrontal

cortex" and the hippocampus both got excited. So Coke is more likely to light up the brain parts related to things like memory and cognitive control. In most cases Pepsi did not have the same effect.

There are a few conclusions we can draw from this. Start by thinking about the differences between the two brands in the public’s eye. Ask people about Coke imagery and they’re likely to come up with Mean Joe Greene, Polar Bears, and a slew of other iconic imagery. Ask people about Pepsi, and the imagery isn’t quite as deeply rooted – they might associate Pepsi with a hot celebrity or with “young generation” appeal, but they probably don’t link it to the kind of emotional American icons Coke has successfully linked to.

So the emotional imagery that Coke has made part of its brand, with varying success, seems to embed in people’s brains. And Pepsi’s reliance on celebrities? Two of their most visible spokespeople, Brittany Spears and Michael Jackson, may forever be associated with the brand but are probably not helping it too much today.

The brain studies suggest that Coke’s iconic brand and arguably stronger cultural connection may in fact make a difference in preference. And that preference is linked not just to taste (hello, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex) but also memory-related brain regions that are related to cultural influences.

This study has powerful implications for the oft discussed but still relevant balance between rational and emotional appeals. Cultural cues and memorable imagery – like the kind that Coke has in the past been known for -- can indeed have a bias on people’s preference. Some of the best brains in the business have known that for years.

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Andy Goldsmith is Vice President, Creative and Brand Strategy for the American Cancer Society.

Coke vs. Pepsi: The Taste Test They Don't Want You to Know About.

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