How Coke and Pepsi’s rivalry shaped marketing — and where it goes next

    This article is part of a four-part series about famous brand rivalries.

    Part I
    How Coke and Pepsi’s rivalry shaped marketing — and where it goes next

    Part II
    Sneaker supremacy: Nike and Adidas battle for brand love

    Competition between brands is natural, but few rivalries are as ingrained in culture as the long-standing battle between Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Even people who have sworn off soda may hold an opinion on which label they align with. “Are you Coke or Pepsi?” is a question that frequently appears on personality quizzes, underpinning the significance ascribed to beverages that, in form and function, are largely similar. 

    With a relationship that predates the 20th century, Coke and Pepsi have played a pivotal role in shaping the contours of modern advertising, helping define what it means to be a brand. Similarly, Coke and Pepsi’s marketing spats have often mirrored broader social change and disruption, reflecting the cutthroat tactics of early packaged goods industrial expansion, the counterculture of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and in today’s world, the concept of brand purpose, where a company pursues a deeper set of values than peddling goods. 

    “As two of the prime consumer products in modern civilization, Coke and Pepsi have come to epitomize perhaps the central feature of all advertising, which is to provide the forum for placing social values and attitudes on a plane with material ones — be they goods, services, or money,” J.C. Louis and Harvey Yazijian write in their 1980 book “The Cola Wars,” an in-depth account of the formation of the two soft drink empires and some of their most iconic battlegrounds. 


    The ad landscape looks markedly different now than it did in the “Mad Men” heyday or the outsized aesthetics of the ‘80s. Today’s consumers have made it clear they don’t much like advertising, while flocking to channels where brand messages are easier to avoid. It’s hard to put on a compelling duel in the marketing arena if the stands are empty.  

    Public frustrations extend to more substantive business practices as well. As much as marketers were pressured for their role in the littering crisis decades ago, they now must contend with questions around sustainability, an area where food and beverage firms produce a massive amount of waste. An antagonistic rivalry might not be conducive to devising planet-saving solutions on this front, and even more lighthearted sparring — enabled by social media — carries a potentially unwanted edge in an increasingly divided society.

    For Coke and Pepsi, the future could require a mindset that’s more hand-in-hand than head-to-head. That’s a difficult needle to thread as the war for consumer attention continues to evolve, jumping to nascent channels like gaming and the metaverse where brands are enacting another land grab.

    “If you’re going to be competitive, if you’re going to be comparative, if you’re going to be head-on, there’s a lot at risk,” Susan Fournier, dean of the Questrom School of Business at Boston University, said of the Coke-Pepsi rivalry. 

    “We’re in a little bit of a pot-shotty, combative world,” Fournier said. “At some level, they’re playing back some kind of a zeitgeist again, but then it’s a matter of: Is that a zeitgeist I want?” 

    Mary Spencer-Churchill christens an American Boeing B-17 using a bottle of Coca-Cola rather than the traditional champagne on April 24, 1944.

    Horace Abrahams/Keystone/Hulton Archive via Getty Images


    Getting to the roots

    Coke and PepsiCo, Pepsi’s parent company, may be two multinational corporations whose reach and extensive product portfolios can make the mind reel, but their story is also one with a clear underdog. The disparities have stretched far back: Coke’s estimated marketing budget in 1939 soared into the millions, according to “The Cola Wars,” while Pepsi’s sat around $600,000. A follower status can have certain benefits, however, and Pepsi occasionally bills itself as a “disruptor” brand to this day. 

    “Pepsi has traditionally been the challenger in the relationship. Their ability to own this and flip it to their advantage leads to memorable breakthrough work,” Ben Phillips, group strategy director at the agency Mekanism, said in an email. Phillips praised a “More than OK” ad from 2019 that playfully riffed on a common question that servers ask diners who request Coke but are stuck with the alternative.  

    Norman Rockwell’s dog and boy advertisement was produced for Coca-Cola in the 1920s.

    Illustration: Norman Rockwell/Advertising Archive/Everett Collection 


    Coke, which was first sold in 1886, has rarely gone on the defensive, mostly because it locked in a leadership status early. Initial iconic advertising embodied classical Americana, with taglines like Archie Lee’s “The Pause that Refreshes” from the 1930s capturing the clean-cut, wholesome style popularized by artists like Norman Rockwell (Rockwell designed several ads for the brand). That positioning proved vital for Coke during World War II, when soldiers fighting abroad coveted the drink as a reminder of home and embodiment of what they were fighting for. 

    Pepsi, originally marketed as Brad’s Drink in 1893, was scrappier, more centered on value. It was also arguably more innovative on the marketing front. The soft drink marketer in the late ‘30s introduced a radio jingle harping on how consumers got more beverage volume for a cheaper price — which was true at the time — revolutionizing radio advertising in “one fell swoop,” per “The Cola Wars.” The earworm became a bona fide hit, broadcast from hundreds of radio stations and even the World Series. 

    “Good advertising in this rivalry is like bringing your sharpest knife to a gunfight.”

    Ben Phillips

    Group strategy director, Mekanism

    While radio ads and jingles are no longer a game-changer in marketing, this strategy laid the groundwork for Pepsi’s identity in important ways that reverberate today, especially through the close association with music. The company for the past decade has sponsored the Super Bowl halftime show as part of an NFL deal reportedly valued at over $2 billion. The stage has captured the attention of tens of millions of viewers during TV’s most-watched event for years, shoring up Pepsi’s reputation for showmanship. 

    While the NFL deal is set to expire in 2022, Pepsi could still renew the agreement, as reported in CNBC. Even if it doesn’t, the brand left things off on a strong note, drawing raves for a Super Bowl LVI showcase that brought together Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, Mary J. Blige and 50 Cent. 

    “Good advertising in this rivalry is like bringing your sharpest knife to a gunfight,” Phillips said.

    “Pepsi [does] advertising, yes, but over the last few years they’ve dropped bombs in pop culture in ways that Coke [hasn’t],” he added. “I can’t think of a more memorable ‘brand activation’ than the Super Bowl halftime show this year.” 

    Justin Timberlake performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl LII Halftime Show at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Feb. 4, 2018.

    Christian Petersen via Getty Images


    Culture wars on the soda stage

    Of course, a rivalry doesn’t amount to much if it’s purely one-sided. Pepsi for years fought tooth and nail to carve out an edge against Coke. Coke resisted responding directly — doing so would admit Pepsi was a legitimate threat — though its awareness of the competition behind the scenes slowly grew. The marketer began inscribing the word Coke on its bottles in 1941, according to “The Cola Wars,” a sign of greater guardedness over its image after trademark disputes.


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