Coke vs. Pepsi: A very commercial rivalry

Pepsi’s recent controversial commercial may be off the air, but the bad taste it left in consumers’ mouths still lingers.

In early April 2017, Pepsi, the giant soda company, released an ad targeted to millennials that portrayed the era’s protest culture and aimed at the idea that Pepsi could bring everyone, despite their differences, together. What was meant to be a lighthearted ad about unity and peace was slammed by ad executives, TV pundits, and most importantly, the internet, as out of touch and completely tone-deaf. The company was accused of trivializing important causes like Black Lives Matter as a way of selling more soda. Within 24 hours of the commercial’s initial release, the company pulled the commercial from the airwaves and released an apologetic statement condemning their own ad. In an ironic twist, the shared hatred of the ad brought diverse groups of people together, though it didn’t help Pepsi’s sales. The brands stocks plummeted in the aftermath of the controversy. While the conversation Pepsi was attempting to start is a noble one, the execution of the ad failed it miserably.

The protest portrayed in the ad was generic, the decision to cast model and reality TV star Kendall Jenner as the leader of said protest was off-putting, and, perhaps worst of all, the idea that a can of soda could end a violent protest and unite protesters with police is laughable. If Pepsi’s goal was to get people talking about their product, they succeeded (sort of) – the YouTube video of the commercial amassed 1.6 million views in the first day and memes of the ad started almost immediately, and continued for weeks after. Saturday Night Live spoofed the ad in a scathing parody that very week. People were certainly talking about Pepsi, though not for the reasons they had initially hoped.

Can a can of soda change the world?

Coke vs. Pepsi: The rivalry continues

Pepsi’s big fumble brought to mind a similarly idyllic ad that rival soda brand Coca Cola produced in 1971, the famous “Hilltop” commercial. More than 40 years after its debut, people are still talking about “Hilltop”, and for good reasons. The ad was referenced in the finale of the AMC show Mad Men and it consistently makes the cut on lists of the best commercials ever made. Coke even remastered the original footage and re-released the commercial in 2016. The theme of the ad is similar to Pepsi’s attempt; it features a crowd of diverse people gathered together on a bucolic hillside with bottles of Coca Cola singing “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”. So why is Coke’s unity ad considered iconic while Pepsi’s was immediately reviled? The simple answer: execution.

Instead of using a bottle of Coke to bring people together in a big event, a diverse group of people simply gathered together to share their differences and commiserate over soda. Coke wasn’t the stimulus for the unity displayed in the commercial, people were. Coke’s ad is about people coming together in peace and harmony as a way to sell soda, not the other way around. That thought, combined with a catchy song, is what makes the commercial iconic.

Can soda change the cultural landscape?

Brands should use caution when tiptoeing the line between social commentary and social activism. Forward thinking brands are rewarded for taking a stand when consumers sense it is authentic. But companies are punished when people detect commerce behind the public social message. Things are not as simple as they were in 1971.

It could be argued that the success of Coca Cola’s ad in 1971 and the failure of Pepsi’s ad in 2017 is a difference in eras. In 1971, the Vietnam War was in full swing, with anti-war and women’s rights protests arising all over the country. It was a turbulent time that “Hilltop” was attempting to pacify. 2017 has seen a resurgence of social movements and terror attacks have launched a new era of global turbulence, something Pepsi wished to capitalize on with their Kendall Jenner-starring ad. What Pepsi failed to recognize is that, no matter the year, a can of soda can’t change the world.

commercial, Pepsi
The not-so-memorable Kendall Jenner commercial from Pepsi.

Force of Habits

Heading into a new year, we tend to think a lot about our habits. Some are good, some less so. Some can be changed. Some we wish could be. Of course all restaurant brands would love to believe that visiting their locations a habit. It likely isn’t. Instead, think of habits as a behavior carried out repeatedly by individuals or groups of guest.

Customer acquisition is a huge investment of time and of money. Winning new customers is so hard, brands have to find ways to create reasons for repeat visits. We know that a small percentage of loyal customers can create the majority of revenue by having a higher lifetime value (LTV). But light and super light users make up 47% of customers on average according to NPD.

Some brands strive to create these repeat generating habits. But regular customers may already have habits that are closely integrated into their visits. These habits can become powerful reinforcement for positive experiences and almost a draw unto themselves. Watching consumers repeat these behaviors can unlock insights into what they like about the brand. Sharing these habits with light users can actually drive occasions.

Gathered together, individual quirks become trends.

A very common habit that has rituals attached to it is coffee. People have a thousand different types of orders and millions of ways to mix their coffee. Splenda, skim, Sweet N Low, cream, whole sugar, half and half, vanilla, stir. That preparation for coffee drinkers is a ritual behavior that is as much a part of the beverage as the actual consumption. Or more. Watch a person making coffee in a new environment or without their favorite additions try to reconcile the challenge.

At the QSR level, frequent visitors have a habit around their tray. Watch patrons closely and observe how each person organizes the items on the tray. Where they place the food, how they move the containers and wrappers, where they put their sauce. These habits are very telling. Tray set up shows how people prioritize and align the food.

For all restaurants an easy way to detect habits are by looking at custom orders. Are customers regularly removing an ingredient to an item or dish? This might be an opportunity to strike it permanently, or replace it with something they’ll like better.

Is there an odd component consistently being added to item? Coleslaw is now a common sandwich topping, but that came out from a small number of people who started the practice and shared it. Finding an item like that could unlock a new menu item, entree or hidden menu.

This behavior is particularly true with beverages. The Coca-Cola Freestyle machine has created a cult that allows people to truly customize their drink to the meal they’re having. Sonic has done a similar thing with their secret drink menu consisting of unique combos that keep people coming back and more importantly, talking.

A look at the purchase data can tell us which items lead to the purchase of other items. Identify uncombined products that groups of people order together. These are habitual meals that customers already enjoy. These can be offered together as a custom LTO through a loyalty program, or an item may be offered individually to drive purchase of it accompaniments.

We tend to think about habits as individual quirks. Gathered together, individual quirks become trends. We can learn a lot about our customer base as a whole by investigating the trends of our top customers.