There are two types of people in the world. One type enjoys blue cheese, while others stick to cheddar. One group enjoys savory koblasniky to sweet kolache, and one type prefers to eat macaroni and cheese with a spoon or a fork. There is another defining category of people, and it comes down an age-old question. Do you prefer Coca-Cola or Pepsi? Of course it’s hard to ignore both as each as huge corporations that own most of the brands on store shelves.
However, if it came down to blind taste tests, would you be able to tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi? As it turns out, it all comes down to flavor. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, published in 2005, he broke down the difference in taste and how it plays with people’s taste preferences. In his research, he even pinpointed the exact difference that causes people to be Team Coke or Team Pepsi.
Coca-Cola, nutritionally, has a touch more sodium than Pepsi, which reminds us of Topo Chico or a club soda and results in a less blatantly sweet taste. Pepsi packs more calories, sugar, and caffeine than Coke.
As he wrote,
“Pepsi is sweeter than Coke, so right away it had a big advantage in a sip test. Pepsi is also characterized by a citrusy flavor burst, unlike the more raisiny-vanilla taste of Coke. But that burst tends to dissipate over the course of an entire can. Pepsi, in short, is a drink built to shine in a sip test.”
So while Coke has a vanilla-raisin taste that leads to a smoother sip of Coca-Cola in a taste test, Pepsi’s citrus flavor stands out in those same taste tests because it’s a sharp, zippy sip from the citric acid ingredient. It’s the citrus tanginess of Pepsi that determines whether people will love it hate it.
What truly determines if what soft drink product you buy from Coke or Pepsi? The availability and name recognition of each option, including its offshoots like Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi. Coke’s brand is considered more valuable than Pepsi and, as a result, is winning the war of the cola. How is Coca-Cola winning, though?
The Cola Wars
It all begins with Pepsi in the early 1980s. The marketing campaign, the Pepsi Challenge, set up a blind taste test between participants to determine if Pepsi was actually better than “the leading cola,” which we all know to be Coke.
As Gladwell also found in his research about taste, people tended to prefer Pepsi in a single sip test because naturally, we’re drawn to sweeter sips. It’s proven by Pepsi’s nutritional content that it has slightly more sugar than Coke, and therefore Pepsi tends to take home a sip test easy with a big advantage. However, it’s when it come down to the full can where Coca-Cola shines. Then, the bright citrus flavor of Pepsi doesn’t hold up well to the smooth flavor of Coca-Cola.
So in 1983, when Pepsi-Cola really started outselling Coca-Cola in the cola market, Coke decided to revamp its formula and created New Coke, which was a sweeter taste designed to mimic Pepsi’s success at those blind taste tests. Over 40,000 letters of complaint filtered into the Coca-Cola offices where execs were forced to reevaluate their decision.
Soon New Coke was phased out, and marketed with a twist that brought the old America history back to Coke by calling it Coca-Cola Classic. It again became so prevalent in the Midwest and the South that when people asked for a Coke, you had to check if they really wanted a soda or a Coca-Cola, and you still do. As for the Coke vs Pepsi rivalry, the rest is history.
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So what is the difference?
"Pepsi is sweeter than Coke, so right away it had a big advantage in a sip test. Pepsi is also characterized by a citrusy flavor burst, unlike the more raisiny-vanilla taste of Coke. But that burst tends to dissipate over the course of an entire can, and that is another reason Coke suffered by comparison. Pepsi, in short, is a drink built to shine in a sip test," writes Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, explaining why Pepsi tends to win the Pepsi Challenge.
Turning to nutritional content, Pepsi has slightly more sugar, calories, and caffeine. Coke has slightly more sodium.
There are also mysterious differences in the natural flavors included in each drink.
Despite these differences, most people can't tell the difference, according to a study by Samuel McClure and Read Montague: "Coke and Pepsi are special in that, while they have very similar chemical composition, people maintain strong behavioral preferences for one over the other. We initially measured these behavioral preferences objectively, by administering double-blind taste tests. We found that subjects split equally in their preferences for Coke and Pepsi in the absence of brand information."
What really matters is branding, and Coke's brand is more valuable. That's why Coke is winning the Cola Wars.
In 2011, Coke brand held 17 percent of the US soda market, followed by Diet Coke at 9.6 percent and Pepsi at 9.2 percent, according to Beverage Digest. Meanwhile Diet Pepsi languishes at 4.9 percent after a dearth of ad spending.
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