When thirsty, nothing tastes better than an ice-cold Pepsi or Coca-Cola – or so we’re told. Both carbonated soft drinks were created in the late 19th century (Coca-Cola in 1886, followed by Pepsi in 1898), meaning they’ve been around longer than we – and our parents – have. Despite more than a century of somewhat similar branding and marketing successes and missteps (clear Crystal Pepsi or Coca-Cola’s Tab Clear, anyone?) and a more or less comparable list of main ingredients – including the possible cancer-causing aspartame – blind taste tests show that consumers can tell the two apart. So, are these American beverage behemoths more alike or different?
Here are three arguments showing that there is a distinct difference between Pepsi and Coca-Cola and three more suggesting otherwise.
There are distinct differences
In flavor and popularity
Pepsi and Coca-Cola are set apart by both flavor and international popularity. In a marketing campaign that has come to define the 1980s, Pepsi introduced a taste test called the Pepsi Challenge in 1975. This got Americans to focus on and acknowledge that Pepsi has a distinctly sweeter taste than Coca-Cola – a taste that Americans preferred back then; its sales jumped in stores nationwide, surpassing Coca-Cola sales. To regain its market share, Coca-Cola tried to literally sweeten the competition, transforming its product into New Coke. While this sweeter version failed, it made the company return to its roots, rebranding itself as Coca-Cola Classic and pushing its popular Diet Coke, to great success. In 2020, Forbes’ list of the world’s most popular brands ranked Coca-Cola as the world’s sixth most popular brand whereas Pepsi is ranked #36 on the same list. However, while Coca-Cola may be bigger internationally, Pepsi is more popular in the US.
In long-term branding and growth
Amid growing nationwide awareness of wellness and nutrition, including the government’s attempts at passing a soda tax, Americans are drinking less soda than ever before. This trend may grow now, given the WHO‘s findings that aspartame, found in Diet Coke, may be a carcinogen. Long before the WHO’s announcement, both Pepsi and Coca-Cola had been embarking on different paths to remain relevant and competitive in the long term. Coca-Cola has been transitioning into a “total beverage company,” partnering over the last few years with various brands of bottled waters, teas, premium milk and even canned alcoholic drinks in Japan. Meanwhile, Pepsi has jumped on the nutrition bandwagon, ditching aspartame from its diet beverages back in 2015 and later expanding its portfolio of snack foods to include “guilt-free products” that contain grains, fruits, vegetables or protein as well as healthy drinks. (That being said, it also introduced a limited edition Pepsi Apple Pie flavor.)
In target audience and marketing
Over the decades, Pepsi and Coca-Cola have targeted different consumer demographics. Pepsi has historically succeeded in targeting younger consumers. (This is despite Pepsi’s 2017 advertisement fiasco with Kendall Jenner attempting but failing to engage Millennials by promoting social responsibility.) Pepsi introduced “the Pepsi Generation” in the 1960s, marketing itself to the younger, hipper, more daring teen and pre-teen segment, relying on celebrities to show how youthful and energizing the beverage is. (It also appealed to younger consumers by being cheaper than its rival.)
In contrast, Coca-Cola has always represented itself as classic Americana, endearing itself to older, more traditional consumers, playing to their emotions, and promoting a reliable drink that goes well with any kind of food or company. Its most memorable embodiment of comradery, unity and diversity was Coca-Cola’s iconic 1970s advertisement that showed people singing about harmony on a hilltop. Fast forward through the decades, and its 2014 Super Bowl commercial again promoted diversity.
There Are No Differences between Pepsi and Coca-Cola
Both created by pharmacists
Both Pepsi and Coca-Cola were created by pharmacists. Coca-Cola inventor John Stith Pemberton had been a chemist and druggist before serving in the Civil War. Pain from war injuries led to a morphine addiction, which was later replaced by cocaine, which inspired Pemberton to concoct a beverage containing coca leaves and kola nuts, called French Wine Cola. In 1886, he replaced the wine with sugar syrup, and, voila, Coca-Cola. Cocaine was removed from the formula in 1929.
As for Pepsi, Caleb Bradham was a part-time pharmacist while in medical school. After dropping out and becoming a full-time pharmacist, he developed Pepsi in 1893 in his own drug store. Known back then as Brad’s Drink, it contained water, sugar, caramel, nutmeg, and lemon oil, among other natural additives, and was sold as an energy booster and digestive aid. Despite this marketing gimmick and its 1898 trademarked name Pepsi, the enzyme, pepsin, which helps digest the proteins in food, was never an ingredient in Pepsi.
Imprinted on the brain
The makers of both Pepsi and Coca-Cola have succeeded in convincing us that their brand names are more influential than their actual flavors. Research shows that our brains apparently have little taste preference between Coca-Cola and Pepsi – but prefer both name brands over a generic brand of cola. Brain scans of study participants revealed that compared to generic cola brands, those who thought they were trying Pepsi or Coca-Cola, had more neural activity in the left ventral striatum, which is the part of the brain that is activated when reward is received or expected. This effect was found even though all the samples consisted of the same beverage.
Surrounded by the same controversy
The companies behind Pepsi and Coca-Cola have been surrounded by the same controversy regarding reported attempts to undermine the health of American consumers. From 2011 to 2015, they both gave millions of dollars to 96 national health organizations to develop relationships that would have positive associations for their brands. However, at the same time, they both spent millions more lobbying against legislative efforts to combat obesity in America, according to a study by Boston University researchers that was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. During the five-year study, the companies reportedly lobbied against at least 28 public health bills aimed at reducing soda consumption.
The Bottom Line: Despite having distinct differences in flavor, target audience and branding ventures, both Pepsi and Coca-Cola have similar histories, consumer sway and power to influence societal norms. Do you have a personal preference?