The Storytelling and Taste Wars – Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi

We don’t buy products based on facts and figures. We buy magic, feelings, emotions – we buy stories.

Let me give you an example.

Almost every weekend, I buy coffee from this one place close to my home. And it isn’t necessarily because they have the best coffee in Amsterdam. This coffee spot is one of my favorites because the owner knows many of his customers, showing he values them greatly. Because the different types of coffee beans on the counter show they’re all about coffee. And because the funny coffee-quote on the wall shows they’re truly passionate about coffee: “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you coffee.” You’ll love your ‘cup of Joe’ long before you’ve even tasted it.

Food and beverages are some of my favorite products from a marketing perspective. And that’s for one simple reason: taste is 100% subjective. And because of that, it can easily be influenced. Take a look at the Pepsi Challenge for example.


The Pepsi Challenge

In 1975, Pepsi set up a series of blind taste tests in malls, shopping centers, and other public locations. The test was simple: there’s one cup that has Pepsi in it, one that has Coca-Cola in it, try both and see which one you prefer.

The result of the test showed that more Americans preferred Pepsi over Coca-Cola. So in the years that followed, Coca-Cola figured that they needed to do something to their flavor in order to make their product more attractive.

Coca-Cola mistakenly thought that their customers cared about taste.

So in 1984, after a $4m research campaign in which Coke tried tons of different recipes, Coca-Cola finally changed the recipe of their iconic drink to make it sweeter. It was the first time in its 99-year history that the recipe was changed.

In the months that followed, the ‘new’ Coca-Cola was being prepped to be launched. Advertising agency McCann-Erickson was put to the marketing task and it quickly became a James Bond type of secret operation. The people involved in the project worked in a separate office from their colleagues, an office guarded by security personnel. And cans of the new Coke would only be carried in and out in secure briefcases.

But still, the news leaked.

Pepsi came down hard on Coke. They took out full-page newspaper ads on the day of Coke’s press conference in which Coke would announce their revitalized drink. The ads read: “After 87 years of going eyeball to eyeball the other guy blinked”. After all, Coke was putting in all this effort to be more like Pepsi.


More than taste

The new Coke formula hit the shelves shortly after the press conference. A major TV campaign was launched and offline there was even a parade organized in New York where thousands got free examples.

But the new Coke wasn’t a success.

A campaign group called ‘Old Cola Drinkers of America’ (yes, that’s a thing) gained massive coverage in the US by launching an actual lawsuit against Coke for changing the recipe that America loved.

Coca-Cola received nearly 40,000 letters of complaint and right after the launch in May they were already receiving about 1,000 angry calls each day. One month later, this number hit 8,000. And sales of Coke went into a free fall.


Coke’s come back 

79 days after launching, Coke held another press conference.

“The passion for original Coca-Cola was something that caught us by surprise. It is a wonderful American mystery, a lovely American enigma, and you cannot measure it any more than you can measure love, pride or patriotism.

People didn’t love Coke for its taste, but because it was America’s sweetheart.

The original recipe was reinstated and sales quickly bounced back.



Storytelling wins 

The Cola wars were never about taste. Coke just felt for the trap that Pepsi had cleverly set up with their Pepsi challenge.

Coca-Cola was (and is) the market leader because it’s America’s favorite. It’s the world’s favorite.

And just like Coca-Cola, we’re okay with buying a $20 bottle of wine instead of a $5 one. And in the same way, this cereal brand with squared cereal pieces became a massive success after they slightly turned their existing product so it looked like a diamond, rather than a square. Perspective is everything.

And if you’re not convinced yet, consider this thought experiment of Ogilvy adman Rory Sutherland:

Imagine a restaurant that serves Michelin-starred food, but where the restaurant smells of sewage and there’s human feces on the floor. The best thing you can do there to create value is not actually to improve the food still further, it’s to get rid of the smell and clean up the floor.”

To create real value, we need to think about the story of the product instead of only focusing on its features.


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The Power of Weird: The Story of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”

In 1979, J.H. Filbert company, based in Baltimore, Maryland, developed a type of spread as a low-cost alternative to butter. They called it “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.”

The inspiration for the name actually came from the husband of a company secretary who tried the product and instantly made the remark that lead to this very distinctive brand name. And when Unilever acquired the spread brand in 1986, they didn’t change the name; they understood the Power of Weird. Today, the spread brand leads the margarine category with product sales of over $240 million.

True brand- and product value comes from differentiation; when the name, design or story of the product are unlike anything out there – when something is weird.



Take the milk brand ‘Silk’ for example, a type of soy milk that doesn’t require refrigeration. Sales of Silk tripled when they moved their soy milk cartons among the regular milk cartons in the refrigerated section. People noticed it was different; Milk, milk, milk, not milk.

It worked because when evaluating brands, consumers use their emotions rather than factual information. Like milk, we don’t compare different types of butter based on their nutritional value. We just see a variety of butter brands on the shelf and think ‘butter, butter, butter, not butter.’



Weird alone is not enough, though. Whatever you’re selling needs to be relevant to people. For example, Cards Against Humanity managed to make $180,000 selling boxes of shit. Literally. But that was because they started selling their boxes in protest of Black Friday, making their product (even though it was really weird) really relevant.



Still, what’s weird for one person might make perfect sense to another. You might not be interested in the jars of fresh air that this British couple is selling for $115 a jar, but if you live in a pollution-plagued Chinese city then a jar of fresh air might not be such a bad idea. Weird works, as long as there’s a demand for it.




Power of Weird

Things that are different get shared, talked about and commented on. If something is unusual it will stand out. Weird gets our attention.

Ad man Rory Sutherland phrased it perfectly in his latest article in The Spectator:

“There are only three infallible rules of advertising. Be distinctive. Make a lot of noise. And try to feature a cute animal somewhere.”

So be distinctive, dare to be different and you’ll quickly discover the Power of Weird.


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How Great Marketing of a Cereal Brand Changed Perceptions

Let me tell you a story about the power of perception in marketing.

It’s a funny story, a typical marketing type of story, but the best part is: it’s a true story.

A few years ago, the cereal company ‘Shreddies’ wanted to raise brand awareness and reached out to advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather in Toronto for their help. The objective for the advertising agency was quite simple: make people think about Shreddies again.

Old Design of Shreddies Cereal Box 

From their research, Ogilvy discovered that consumers actually already really liked Shreddies; they didn’t want anything to change.

So how do you make a product more popular that people don’t want to see changed? Ogilvy decided to start by looking at the design of the Shreddies cereal box.

This rather sample task, to take a closer look at the design of the box, was given to a 26-year old summer intern, Hunter Somerville. Poor Hunter had been with Ogilvy & Mather for only 3 months and was now given the task to find a way to get people to like Shreddies more.

What made it even more challenging for hunter was that, for over 15 years, the cereal company had not made any real investment in their marketing. So the only thing that Hunter had to work with was the product itself: a squared, whole-wheat cereal.

But then he found the solution to Shreddies’ problem.

As he was brainstorming, Hunter made one groundbreaking discovery: if you would turn a piece of Shreddies cereal 45 degrees, it wouldn’t be squared anymore, but diamond shaped.

Think about that for a second; nothing would be changed to the product, but they would redesign the cereal box by turning the product 45 degrees so it would look like a diamond.

Even Hunter probably thought it was insane but still, mostly for fun, Hunter pitched the ‘Diamond Shreddies’ to his creative team. And they loved the simplicity of the idea. So they decided to make it happen.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the commercial of the Diamond shaped Shreddies:


Test, test, test

But of course, they needed to do research to get people’s thoughts on the new Shreddies package design. And people loved it.

They actually filmed the response of the people who tried the ‘new’ Diamond Shreddies. Take a look at the video below, showing ad man Rory Sutherland telling the story of Shreddies and how the research was conducted.



Changing perceptions leads to results

At this point I reckon there’s only one thing going through your mind: something as insane as this would never work. Or would it? Can crazy ideas like this really change people’s perception of a brand?

Yes, they can.

Within two months, the Shreddies website attracted over 95,000 unique visitors. They even organized a little competition, where more than 28,000 people voted for which type of Shreddies they liked best: the squared Shreddies or the diamond ones. And already within the first month of the campaign, Shreddies market share went up by 18 points.

This story shows that you don’t need a lot to change perceptions. You don’t necessarily need big budgets and you don’t need the most senior minds in the company working on solving the problem. But what you do need is a hell of a lot of creativity and the freedom to execute crazy ideas like this.

Oh and by the way, if you’re wondering, don’t worry: Hunter is no longer an intern. He received a number of prestigious awards (Cannes Lions, Clios, etc.) and was ranked in the top 5 creatives in both Toronto and also later in the UK, where he helped DDB London become the most awarded agency of the year and the decade.


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