The Pepsi Challenge, a brilliant piece of marketing, pitted Coke versus Pepsi in two unmarked cups to everyone who dared try a sample.
Consumers were asked simply, which one do you prefer?
When the final results of this effort were tallied it was clear that people preferred Pepsi. So, by all accounts, Pepsi should be trouncing Coke but it wasn’t and isn’t. Why?
Malcolm Gladwell outlined one theory in Blink. He proposed that in small samples-“Sip Tests”-people choose Pepsi because it tastes sweeter. However, in real life, we don’t drink just have a sip and stop and there is a huge difference between a sip and a full can. Over the course of a can, the sweeter taste of Pepsi sent people’s blood sugar levels into overdrive. That, according to Gladwell, is why Pepsi won in the taste tests but Coke continued to lead the Market.
That’s not the end of the story. In 2003, Dr. Read Montague, the Director of Neuroimaging Lab at Bayer College of Medicine, decided to explore the test results through the lens of an fMRI machine. First, he asked the volunteers whether they preferred Pepsi or Coke. The results from this simple question mimicked the results of the Pepsi Challenge. The majority of people choose Pepsi. Their brains did too. While sipping Pepsi volunteers experienced a flurry of activity in the the ventral putamen, a region of the brain that’s stimulated when we find tastes appealing.
During the second stage of the experiment, Dr. Montague decided to let subjects know if they were sampling Coke or Pepsi before they consumed the beverage. The result: 75% of the respondents preferred Coke. Why?
Dr. Montague observed that in addition to a stimulated ventral putamen, blood flows were now elevated in the medial prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain that, among other things, handles higher thinking and discernment. There was a tug of war going on between the rational and emotional spots in our brain. Emotions won. We drink more Coke than Pepsi.
Coke has spent a lifetime, and literally billions of dollars, building up emotional associations with history, big events, its logo, color, design, fragrance, famous people, childhood, Christmas, Olympics, dreams, and aspirations, .. you get the point.
As Martin Lindstrom puts it, “Emotions are the way in which our brains encode things of value, and a brand that engages us emotionally will win every single time.”