My 1998 Meandering Essay on Coca-Cola
Here’s another piece from the Scalzi.com archives, this one from waaay back in the day: 1998. Yes, it was one of the very first things I put up on the site. In it I discuss:
I’m in a mixed marriage: I drink Coke and my wife drinks Pepsi.
Normally, this isn’t much of an issue; since I’m the main soda drinker in the house, Krissy (that’d be my wife), tends to buy Coke and then drinks it when she has a cola (we stock other, non-cola sodas as well, which are not an issue). Every so often, however, she gets a little jumpy. “I have to have a Pepsi,” she declares, with a sort of urgency. It’s almost as if without an occasional infusion of the stuff, she’ll lose her secret powers or something — not unlike Popeye and his spinach, except less healthy (and, of course, Krissy looks nothing like Popeye, with his freakish forearms and utter lack of chin). What her need for Pepsi means, however, is that I have to get up, trudge over to the local supermarket, grab one of those 20-ounce bottles, and then head back to the homestead. It’s a small price to pay for domestic felicity.
Why don’t we just keep a six-pack of Pepsi in the fridge? Hush.
The occasional forced purchase of Pepsi caused me to reflect on the whole cola schism. By and large, people really do seem to have a preference for either Coke or Pepsi, often to the exclusion of the other. I, for example, will not drink Pepsi if can avoid it without effort. If I’m in a store and it’s selling Coke at full price and Pepsi on sale, I’ll buy the Coke. If I’m at a restaurant and I order a Coke, and they ask “Is Pepsi all right?” it’s 50/50 that I’ll switch the drink to another soda flavor. It’s nothing against Pepsi, per se — I don’t irrationally hate the product or the company, and in fact, prefer some Pepsi products over Coke products (in particular I prefer Mountain Dew over Coke’s somewhat vile entry into the heavily caffinated citrus drink market, called Surge). But when I want a cola, I want a Coke, period. It’s the sort of brand identification that companies dream of.
Why? Well, foremost, I enjoy the taste, which is mellow and sweet without being too sweet (“too sweet” being defined as sweet enough to make one’s back teeth throb out a cavity warning). It’s the fundamental cola taste experience, and everyone knows it — even, I suspect, the folks at Pepsi, whose own cola formulation has always struck me as trying too hard: too tangy, too sweet, too carbonated. Coke meets your taste buds like an old friend. Pepsi, on the other hand, grabs on to them like a loudmouth at a party: Sure, he’s real friendly, but you still want to get away from him sooner than later. In terms of the total cola experience, in fact, I’d rank Pepsi third among the national brands, the #2 experience being, of course, RC Cola. It’s the cola that Coke drinkers can, in a pinch, drink without feeling guilty about — the Anglican Church to Coke’s Catholic, close enough in the general sense that you can get over the few technical differences.
Also, I think there really is something to how Coke positions itself. One hates to admit that one is influenced by corporate branding — it means that those damned advertisers actually managed to do their job — but what can you say. It works. Since Coke is the market leader, it doesn’t spend any time as far as I can see banging on Pepsi or other brands; its ads stick to their knitting, which is making sure that people feel that Coke is part of everyday life — and at some point during your day, you’re probably going to have a Coke. It’s inevitable. And hey — that’s okay. That’s as it should be, in fact. I don’t know that I would call Coke’s ads soft sells (after all, they brand the product literally up the wazoo), but I don’t find the advertising utterly annoying.
Which brings us back to Pepsi. Pepsi is eternally positioning itself as the outsider — “Pepsi Generation,” “Generation Next,” so on and so forth. Always young, always fun, always mildly rebellious, yadda yadda yadda. Since one goes in knowing that Pepsi is a multibillion-dollar corporation, I’ve always found the rebellion angle amusing (and not just in Pepsi’s case — if you’re a company that’s big enough to advertise your wares every single day on national networks, you’ve gotten just a bit beyond being the rebel’s choice, now, haven’t you?). Being a rebel doesn’t really work for me — most of what is positioned as being a rebel is actually not rebellion, merely sullenness and inarticulateness. And really, I’m just too bourgeois for that at this point in my life. The only really rebellious national ad campaign that I can think of off the top of my head is the old Bennetton campaigns, which featured things like dying AIDS patients and third world dumps and declared them as part of their world. I really don’t expect Pepsi to follow that example — it’s just not a rebel corporation.
Besides, Pepsi can’t seem to advertise itself without bringing up the point that Coke exists, and is the better-selling brand. As far as I can remember, Pepsi has been putting itself in opposition to Coke — starting with the “Pepsi Challenge” in the 70s, up to today’s very amusing commercials that feature the Coke delivery guy sneaking cans of Pepsi for himself. Sure, it gets the Pepsi brand out there, but it also gives free exposure to Coke. On the other hand, I can’t think of a single Coke ad that even acknowledges that Pepsi exists. Now, on the average, I find Pepsi ads more interesting than Coke ads — they’re generally funnier (and certainly more frenetic), but to the extent that a Cola war exists in the public consciousness, it exists because Pepsi keeps on telling people about it (and that they’re on the underdog side). As far as Coke ads are concerned, not only is the war over, there never was a war to begin with. Pepsi might think about not giving Coke the free ride.
Finally, I’m immune to celebrity spokespeople. I’m real happy for Cindy Crawford that she drinks Pepsi and all, but what does that do for me? If I drink Pepsi, it doesn’t mean that Cindy is going to be my friend. I won’t get to spend special moments with Cindy, sharing my hopes and dreams with the Supermodel of the Universe as we guzzle our carbonated beverages. I certainly won’t get to sleep with Cindy, which is ultimately the image Pepsi wants you to have running around in your mind. Of course, sleeping with Cindy Crawford wouldn’t make me want to drink Pepsi, anyway. I already sleep with someone who drinks Pepsi, after all. It hasn’t caused me to convert (Yes, Coke has their celebs — I don’t want to sleep with them, either).
Sorry about spewing on advertising, but that’s just me. I just don’t get worked up over brands that try too hard to make try their product because it’s cool. I’m married. I’m balding. I’m of average looks. I’m 28 and way beyond the days where I worried about making the scene. I’m just not cool. I never was cool. It’s highly unlikely that I will ever become cool at this late date in my life. I don’t give a damn about being cool. I don’t have the time for it, and I certainly don’t have the money for it (well, actually, I do, but I don’t want to spend it that way). I understand that Pepsi is trying to graft brand identification onto the youngsters early so that when they get old enough to do the shopping, they’ll pick up Pepsi rather than Coke. Meanwhile, however, Coke is going after the people who are already doing the shopping, and the kids get what they get. In the long run, that seems to me the smarter way to do things for a product like this. It ain’t Gameboy, you know.
Coke, of course, learned the hard way that the vast majority of Coke drinkers don’t want Coke to be cool, they want it to be Coke. In the mid 80s, some idiots over at Coca-Cola headquarters decided what they needed to do was reformulate Coke to give it a sweeter, zingier taste (“more like Pepsi,” some folks noted) and then do away with the old Coke. Everyone knows what happened then — people just about rioted. In the end, of course, the company brought back Coke (now “Coca-Cola Classic”) and the “new” Coke, now labeled “Coke II,” has been relegated for the most part to the dusty soda cooler of history. I came across a store selling it in Chicago when I was there recently, and thought about buying a bottle of the stuff — not to drink, but just because I hadn’t seen it in years.
What’s interesting about this fairly singular event in product marketing history is it proved that Coca-Cola, the soda, is bigger than the company that makes it — it truly is a fundamental part of Americana. In a way, I think the consumer response to the reformulation was sort of sweet. Imagine Coca-Cola as the worried spouse who fears that they are not as attractive as they used to be, so they try a daffy new haircut or maybe a pair of outrageous pants. The American consumer is the spouse who reassures them that, yes, they really are just as attractive as they used to be. The pants go to Goodwill. The hair grows out. Everything goes on more or less as before, with only a couple of pictures as reminders of that silly, zany, foolish time.
Now, would people go as nuts if Pepsi reformulated? I doubt it. It’s just not the same thing. It’s not, shall we say, the real thing.