Depending on how old you are, you may remember the “Pepsi Challenge” marketing campaign of the 1980s. For those unfamiliar with it, it was a double-blinded experiment to determine if Pepsi tastes better than Coke. To remove the bias of advertising, individuals were blindfolded and asked to choose their favorite soda by focusing only on taste.
When the commercials aired, the participants always picked Pepsi – no surprise there. The interesting thing was that most people also picked Pepsi (62%) who tried it in real life—the sweeter taste was more appealing.
Before the launch of the “Pepsi Challenge,” Coke was the dominant brand, but Pepsi was closing the gap. After the launch of the new campaign, Pepsi was outselling Coke in supermarkets across the globe. Even better, Pepsi forced Coke into what is widely regarded as one of the worst business decisions of all time.
Shortly after the launch of the Pepsi campaign, Coke began working on a secret venture – dubbed Project Kansas – to develop a superior product. The result? New Coke, a sweeter cola reformulated to beat Pepsi and the classic formulation of Coke in blind taste tests.
Spoiler alert – it didn’t work!
Loyal Coke fans were irate. They didn’t want a new flavor. Coca-Cola’s senior leadership acted swiftly and reintroduced the original formula under the name “Coca-Cola Classic.” Despite the stumble, Coke retained their market position, and to this day, Pepsi remains number two.
So I come back to my original question. If Pepsi tastes better, why do more people still choose Coke?
Coke’s ability to remain number one is an example of branding over flavor, and the impact advertising plays in shaping our decisions. Where Coke did miscalculate, besides changing the formula, was never asking testers if they wanted the taste to change. In essence, they asked the wrong question, so they got the wrong answer and failed to grasp the fact that it wasn’t just about the taste.
I have to acknowledge a valiant effort from Pepsi who, for a moment, made people believe that taste should be the driving force for choosing soft drinks.
However, sip tests often produce completely different results versus more common use. While many people prefer a sweeter drink when having just a small amount, they often find these drinks too sweet when consumed in large quantities.
So what can the Pepsi Challenge teach us about making choices in our personal or professional lives?
- When making choices, be aware of the influence of branding
- From early childhood, our perception of a good person, partner, or profession is being shaped by others’ ideas. It requires a significant amount of discipline to make choices based on what is important to you. At the end of the day, even if others don’t agree, if certain criteria are important to you when deciding who you want to be, whom you want to be with, or what you want to become, don’t compromise on it.
- A small dose of “sweet” should not determine a long term commitment
- The importance of making a good first impression is no secret. Knowing this, a lot of critical decisions are based on first impressions or “sip tests.” It is unlikely you will learn everything you need to know about someone or a company to make a long-term commitment from a limited encounter. Sure, there is that initial rush of sweetness, but will it last? Put differently, a “test drive” in a parking lot is not enough to determine how a car will handle on a highway.
- Fail fast
- If you see something is not working, do not delay corrective action. You may risk losing yourself, people who have been loyal to you or missing out on opportunities. If you keep ending up in the “same situation,” then the questions you are asking are leading you down the same path. For example, asking, “Do you believe in work-life balance?” is not the same as “Do you allow four-day work weeks?”
- Authenticity and consistency creates loyalty
- The best you is the real you (always the real thing). Maintaining a façade is exhausting and simply not healthy or sustainable over the long haul. You will inevitably make a drastic change from what people have come to expect, and that alone can destroy any relationship.
Bottom line, making choices is a science experiment similar to the “Pepsi Challenge.” The more you do it, the more you learn what you like, what you don’t like, and also what people like and don’t like about you – assuming you ask the right questions.
Conrod Kelly – Coke drinker