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Chapter 2:

Marketing Communications Challenges

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Neuromarketing and the Case of Why Coca-Cola Outsells Pepsi


Coca-Cola (Coke) and Pepsi are two well-known carbonated beverages that have been marketed for over 100 years. These brands have been locked in fierce battles for decades, described sometimes as the cola wars. One sensational battle began in 1975 when Pepsi sponsored a national taste test to determine which brand, Coke or Pepsi, was regarded as better tasting. Following this testing, Pepsi undertook an advertising campaign (called the Pepsi Challenge) that directly compared Pepsi with Coke and claimed the research evidence (i.e., so-called blind taste tests) revealed that consumers prefer Pepsi over Coke. If in fact Pepsi is a better tasting beverage than Coke, why is Coca-Cola the higher selling and more popular beverage? For an answer, lets enter the world of neuromarketing and the technology of brain imaging. Neuromarketing is a specific application of the field of brain research called neuroscience. Neuroscientists study activation of the brain to outside stimuli with the use of brain scanning machines that take functional magnetic resonance images (fMRIs) when individuals visually or otherwise employ their senses upon exposure to stimuli.16 Brain scans with fMRI machines reveal which areas of the brain are most activated in response to external stimuli. With this brief description in mind, we can describe research conducted by a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, research that might be described as the 21st Century Pepsi Challenge. The scientist, Read Montague, performed this newfangled Pepsi Challenge by scanning the brains of 40 study participants after they tasted intermittent squirts of Pepsi and Coke. When blind as to which brand they were tasting, Pepsi came out the clear winner. That is, the reward center of the brain, the ventral putamen, revealed a much stronger preference for Pepsi versus Coke when study participants were unaware of which brand they had tasted. However, this result flip-flopped when Montague altered the testing procedure by telling participants the name of the brand they were about to taste. Now a different region of the brain was more activated and Coca-Cola was the winner in this nonblind taste test. In particular, activation in the medial prefrontal cortexan area of the brain associated with cognitive functions such as thinking, judging, preference, and self-imagerevealed that participants now preferred Coke. In short, with blind taste tests, Pepsi was the winner. With nonblind tests, Coke prevailed. Whats going on? The apparent answer is a difference in brand images, with Coke possessing the more attractive image earned through years of effective marketing and advertising effort. When participants knew they were tasting Coke, their preference for that brand was mediated by past experiences and positive associations of the brand matching their self-imagesas reflected in the activation of the medial prefrontal cortex. When clueless of brand identity, the raw reward center of the brain, the ventral putamen, revealed Pepsi to be the winner, presumably because it is a somewhat better tasting soft drink. Most interesting is the fact that Coca-Colas marcom efforts have enabled that brand to rise to the top. Past ad campaigns such as Its the Real Thing, Id Like to Buy the World a Coke, and Have a Coke and a Smile have possibly resonated more positively with consumers than has Pepsis marketing, which has concentrated more on aligning that brand with, as it turned out, ill-advised celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Britney Spears. In sum, this 21st century Pepsi Challenge further demonstrates the importance of effective marcom efforts and the role that a positive brand image plays in determining brand equity and influencing consumer choices.
SOURCES: Edwin Colyer, The Science of Branding, Brandchannel, March 15, 2004, http:/ /brandchannel.com. (accessed March 22, 2004); Clive Thompson, Theres a Sucker Born in Every Medial Prefrontal Cortex, The New York Times, /rickross.com (accessed July 20, 2004); David WahlOctober 26, 2003, http:/ berg, Advertisers Probe Brains, Raise Fears, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 1, 2004, http:/ /cognitiveliberty.org (accessed July 20, 2004); Melani Wells, In Search of the Buy Button, Forbes.com, September 1, 2003, http:/ / forbes.com (accessed July 20, 2004); The Cola Wars: Over a Century of Cola Slogans, Commercials, Blunders, and Coups, http:/ /geocities.com/colacentury (accessed July 21, 2004).

meaning. Through socialization, people learn cultural values, form beliefs, and become familiar with the physical manifestations, or artifacts, of these values and beliefs. The artifacts of culture are charged with meaning, which is transferred from generation to generation. For example, the Lincoln Memorial and Ellis Island are