The Coke and Pepsi challenge. We all remember it.


5min read

Strategic Branding

How Brands Shape Taste Perception

The Short of It

  • Brand history and the types of cultural and social associations created along the way are powerful in shaping perception.
  • Don't think about the history you have up to this point.
  • Think about the history you'd like to have when looking at today from the future.

The Coke and Pepsi challenge. We all remember it. One set of challenges said that Pepsi was liked more, while Coke’s challenge showed that they were the preferred favorite. What gives?

The main difference was in the way the tests were carried out. Pepsi did their tests using blind taste tests where the person couldn’t see the brand. Coke did their research in a way that participants could see what they were drinking, including the red trademark that we all know.

To get some further clarification, a group of neuroscientists at the Baylor College of Medicine did their own blind and non-blind study using fRMI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which detects changes in blood flow in the brain to track which areas of the brain are being activated.

What the tests showed is that Pepsi and Coke trigger about the same response mechanisms when people don’t know which one they’re getting. For blind squirts of both Coke and Pepsi, the center of the brain associated with strong feelings of emotional connection, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, was stimulated. Easy enough.

But when participants knew they were getting Coke, the frontal area of the brain, the dorsolateral aspect of the prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), an area involved in higher human brain functions like working memory, associations, and higher-order cognition and ideas, was also activated. And these areas are connected to the brains pleasure centers

Dan Ariely, in his book Predictably Irrational, says the following:

"... the advantage of Coke over Pepsi was due to Coke's brand - which activated higher-order brain mechanisms. These associations, then, and not the chemical properties of the drink, gave Coke an advantage in the marketplace.

"This is probably why Coke was liked more when the brand was known - the associations were more powerful, allowing the part of the brain that represents these associations to enhance activity in the brain's pleasure center."

The sad thing for Pepsi is that even when participants in the study knew they were getting Pepsi, there was not the same activation in the DLPFC. In other words, there was no significant brand association that made the experience of having Pepsi any more pleasurable.

Even as I think of Pepsi as I write this I’m coming up with Michael Jackson’s hair on fire and the infamous new Pepsi logo. I do remember a commercial with Lauren Hutton, but I think that was Pepsi Light. For some reason, there's just not a lot of strong, positive information to connect to.

For Coke, however, I picture Norman Rockwell paintings, people holding hands and singing on a hill, Polar bears and, of course, that nostalgia invoking script of a logo. And that's just to start.

What about you? What are the first things you think of for each brand and do you think they would have a positive or negative influence on your taste of each product?

A clear lesson here is on the importance of brand history and the types of cultural and social associations that are created along the way. As you look to build the brand of your organization, it can be useful to not think about that the brand you're stuck with now, but on what you need to do to help build the type of brand you'd like to be in the future.

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