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

2022/05/04 Innoverview Read

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?” 

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.  

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. 
(Source: RetailDive How Coke and Pepsi's rivalry shaped marketing — and where it goes next | Marketing Dive)