What is it with Coca-Cola? Is it the branding, the advertising, the colour red? What about the whole Santa Claus story – is the company really responsible for how the character looks? Then there are the taste tests – does Pepsi always win when people do blind challenges?
Last time, we looked at how the signing of Michael Jordan revolutionised Nike’s business. The Coca-Cola story is very different. But it does have one thing in common, one key focus that both companies put at the centre of everything: emotion.
In the same way that much of Nike’s marketing doesn’t feature specific products but instead uses storytelling to attract customers who want to be part of something bigger, to be part of a movement, Coca-Cola sells a feeling rather than a drink. To be specific, Coca-Cola sells happiness.
So how does the company do this? Let’s look at the psychology behind Coca-Cola’s marketing choices, and why the drink remains so popular.
The Coca-Cola Company was founded in 1886 by pharmacist John Pemberton. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Pemberton created a syrup that he thought might be used as a kind of tonic for common, minor health problems. He then mixed this syrup with carbonated water and took it to a local pharmacy, where they sold it as a drink.
It was Frank Mason Robinson – a marketer – who is generally credited with coming up with the highly-recognisable flowing script for Coca-Cola and giving the drink its name. Later, it was Asa Griggs Candler who purchased the Coca-Cola recipe from Pemberton and under whose leadership the company that we know today started to form and grow.
Looking at current sales figures can be confusing. At a glance, PepsiCo has significantly higher revenue than Coca-Cola. This is due to PepsiCo diversifying beyond beverages and growing a sizable portfolio of well-known snack foods. But if we focus on drinks alone, Gitnux reports that in 2020, Coca-Cola sold around 418 billion litres of carbonated beverages, with its rival Pepsi selling 310 billion litres. So Coke is ahead by about one billion litres. That’s a lot of cans.
What is the Pepsi paradox?
When you drink something, you don’t just taste its chemical composition. According to Psychology Today, ‘you taste its price and many other aspects of the drink that do not register on the tongue.’ This is one of the arguments put forward as to why Coca-Cola sells more than Pepsi, even though on blind taste tests, Pepsi usually seems to win.
The article describes an experiment that took the Pepsi challenge to new lengths. Researchers put together a testing group, some of whom had normal brain function, and others who had damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex – a part of the brain which they describe as the ‘the seat of the warm fuzziness we experience when we contemplate a familiar brand-name product.’
First, they conducted a blind test for all participants. Pepsi won. Then they did a taste test where all participants saw what they were drinking. Needless to say, those with a functioning ‘brand appreciation’ module chose Coke, the rest chose Pepsi. So, while we may deny that all those commercials we saw during childhood – along with the packaging, the bright red and white cans and the font – influence our choices, this experiment seems to indicate that when it comes to soft drinks, we consume brands in an almost literal sense.
What is it about Coca-Cola’s branding?
Coke learned from its own mistakes. In the 1980s, when the company started bringing out different variations of its drink, the accompanying variations in packaging, logos and fonts all seemed to suggest that these drinks were competing with each other. It did not help the brand or the business.
Coke identified the problem, and from that point on focused more on selling the brand of Coca-Cola rather than focusing so much on individual drinks. The goal was to ensure that each of their drinks felt like they belonged to the part of the same family, so the company could sell that same feeling, regardless of the specific product.
Is it about Christmas?
It turns out Coca-Cola didn’t invent the look of Santa Claus that we are so familiar with today – there are images of Santa that pre-date Coke’s first Christmas commercial. However, the company did refine the character’s look, making Santa more human and generally turning him into the Gentex warm and jolly presence that he is associated with today. Coca-Cola even continued the winter theme, later bringing polar bears into their commercials as well.
Not bad for a drink best served with ice and usually associated with warm summer days.
In the end, it’s about emotion
It’s not something anyone can say decisively, but it has been claimed that Coca-Cola is the second most commonly recognised English word globally after ‘okay’. Certainly, anyone who has travelled and seen the logo in different languages can see how the drink has translated around the world. Perhaps, in the end, that is its secret. It conveys a universal emotion, happiness, that feels like home for everyone. Regardless of where that home actually is.