Many people will tell you that there are two types of people in the world. Are you a morning person or a night person? A hot dog or a hamburger lover? Or, the ultimate distinction: Do you prefer Coca-Cola or Pepsi?
Although regionality and brand preference factor into many people's decision-making when it comes to their soda brand of preference, research says that there is in fact a significant difference of taste between the two colas.
In Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 book Blink he broke down the difference in taste and how it plays with people's taste preferences. In his research, he even pinpointed the exact difference that causes people to be Team Coke or Team Pepsi. Coca-Cola, nutritionally, has a touch more sodium than Pepsi, which reminds us of Topo Chico or a club soda and results in a less blatantly sweet taste. Pepsi packs more calories, sugar, and caffeine than Coke. Although they both have carbonation and sweet flavor, the taste difference is undeniable. It's slight, but its there!
So while Coke has a vanilla-raisin taste that leads to a smoother sip of Coca-Cola in a taste test, Pepsi's citrus flavor stands out in those same taste tests because it's a sharp, zippy sip from the citric acid ingredient. It's the citrus tanginess of Pepsi that determines whether people will love it hate it.
Of course, both Pepsi and Coke are omnipresent in daily American life, as they are massive corporations that produce most of the sports drinks and snacks you see at Walmart and on Amazon. What truly determines if what soft drink product you buy from Coke or Pepsi? Oftentimes, the availability and name recognition of each option, including its offshoots like Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, are the greatest factors.
The Cola Wars
The time-tested rivalry all begins with Pepsi in the early 1980s. The Pepsi Challenge marketing campaign set up a blind taste test between participants to determine if Pepsi was actually better than "the leading cola," which we all know to be Coke.
As Gladwell also found in his research about taste, people tended to prefer Pepsi in a single sip test because naturally, we're drawn to sweeter sips. It's proven by Pepsi's nutritional content that it has slightly more sugar than Coke, and therefore Pepsi tends to take home a sip test easily with a big advantage. However, it's when it comes down to the full can or glass bottle where Coca-Cola shines. Then, the bright citrus flavor of Pepsi doesn't hold up well to the smooth flavor of Coca-Cola.
So in 1983, when Pepsi-Cola really started outselling Coca-Cola in the cola market, Coke decided to revamp its formula and created New Coke, which was a sweeter taste designed to mimic Pepsi's success at those blind taste tests. Over 40,000 letters of complaint filtered into the Coca-Cola Company headquarters in Atlanta where execs were forced to reevaluate their decision.
Soon New Coke was phased out, and marketed with a twist that brought the old American history back to Coke by calling it Coca-Cola Classic. It again became so prevalent in the Midwest and the South that when Americans asked for a Coke, you had to check if they really wanted a soda or a Coca-Cola, and you still do. As for the beverage company rivalry, the rest is history.
If it came down to blind taste tests, do you think you would be able to tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi on your first sip?
This post was originally published on February 6th, 2019.