Neuromarketing and the Case of Why Coca-Cola Outsells Pepsi

Coca-Cola (Coke) and Pepsi are two well-known carbonated beverages that have been marketed for over 100 years. These brands have been locked in fierce battles for decades, described sometimes as “the cola wars.” One sensational battle began in 1975 when Pepsi sponsored a national taste test to determine which brand, Coke or Pepsi, was regarded as better tasting. Following this testing, Pepsi undertook an advertising campaign (called the “Pepsi Challenge”) that directly compared Pepsi with Coke and claimed the research evidence (i.e., so-called “blind” taste tests) revealed that consumers prefer Pepsi over Coke. If in fact Pepsi is a better tasting beverage than Coke, why is Coca-Cola the higher selling and more popular beverage? For an answer, let’s enter the world of neuromarketing and the technology of brain imaging.
Neuromarketing is a specific application of the field of brain research called neuroscience. Neuroscientists study activation of the brain to outside stimuli with the use of brain scanning machines that take functional magnetic resonance images (fMRIs) when individuals visually or otherwise employ their senses upon exposure to stimuli. Brain scans with fMRI machines reveal which areas of the brain are most activated in response to external stimuli. With this brief description in mind, we can describe research conducted by a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, research that might be described as the “21st Century Pepsi Challenge.”
The scientist, Read Montague, performed the Pepsi Challenge by scanning the brains of 40 study participants after they tasted intermittent squirts of Pepsi and Coke. When “blind” as to which brand they were tasting, Pepsi came out the clear winner. That is, the reward center of the brain, the ventral putamen, revealed a much stronger preference for Pepsi versus Coke when study participants were unaware of which brand they had tasted. However, this result flip-flopped when Montague altered the testing procedure by telling participants the name of the brand they were about to taste. Now a different region of the brain was more activated and Coca-Cola was the winner in this nonblind taste test. In particular, activation in the medial prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain associated with cognitive functions such as thinking, judging, preference, and selfimage—revealed that participants now preferred Coke. In short, with blind taste tests, Pepsi was the winner. With nonblind tests, Coke prevailed. What happened?
The apparent answer is a difference in brand images, with Coke possessing the more attractive image earned through years of effective marketing and advertising effort. Past ad campaigns such as “It’s the Real Thing,” “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” and “Have a Coke and a Smile” have possibly resonated more positively with consumers than has Pepsi’s marketing, which has concentrated more on aligning that brand with, as it turned out, ill-advised celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Britney Spears. In sum, this “21st century Pepsi Challenge” further demonstrates the importance of effective marcom efforts and the role that a positive brand image plays in determining brand equity and influencing consumer choices.

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