Rock & Roller Cola Wars: How advertising blunders paved the way for Coke to dominate the market

“This is a blood feud between the two companies, the likes of which we have rarely seen in the history of business”

Coke or Pepsi? It’s a question that has divided opinions since the early 1900’s, and one that you probably have your own answer to. While our individual allegiances are based more on taste than the arguably questionable marketing decisions both companies have made over the years, there is no denying that we will have also been unknowingly influenced by a battle that’s been waged on our screens and in our media for decades.

The Coke brand first appeared in the public eye in the late 1800’s in Georgia, USA. The original recipe contained small amounts of cocaine – a drug that was widely used as a “cure all” in the 1800’s – and was secured by a pharmacist in Atlanta who went on to form the Coca-Cola Company. Five years later, after seeing the success of the Coca-Cola Company, another pharmacist based in North Carolina formulated his own recipe, first called “Brad’s Drink” before being rebranded to Pepsi Cola in the late 1890’s. Cocaine was removed from the Coca-Cola recipe in 1929.

By the 1930’s, Coke was already a household name across the US and Europe. By utilising popular imagery in it’s advertising campaigns – such as the Santa Claus adverts we still see today – Coke was able to firmly place itself within the mainstream consciousness whereas Pepsi were left floundering due to company restructuring and financial difficulties.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s however, that the Cola Wars really began. With both companies wishing to dominate the market, they turned to extreme measures in order to outdo one another. Pepsi launched a (genius) marketing campaign which involved a blind taste test of both sodas – the public unanimously agreed that Pepsi was their favourite based on taste alone, which caused panic amongst the ranks at Coca-Cola Company. In response, Coke decided to come out with a new recipe which they called “New Coke” – groundbreaking, right? Surprisingly – or unsurprisingly, depending on which way you look at it – take up for the new recipe was not high. The taste was meant to be similar to Pepsi, sweeter and more syrupy, in keeping with the results of the taste test, but the public were outraged.

Coca-Cola eventually brought back the original recipe under the name “Coca-Cola Classic”, and while the New Coke campaign didn’t have the results they had originally intended, the debacle ended up being financially lucrative for them with Coca-Cola Classic flying off the shelves.

New Coke was eventually discontinued and, despite the results of Pepsi’s marketing campaign, consumers were still buying Coke in higher volumes, preferring to stick with the household favourite.


So how did Coke secure the top spot as the world’s favourite cola drink?

Coke first utilised the power of product placement in the 1940’s, with products featured in the iconic holiday classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. By the 1960’s, the brand’s products were appearing in so many movies they had to open an LA office in which they could monitor how the brand was being represented. Perhaps one of the most famous instances of product placement was in E.T. which was the highest grossing film of all time (at the time). Utilising product placement in this way ensured that the brand stayed relevant and was at the forefront of popular culture.

Pepsi also had their fair share of product placement in mainstream movies, with a particularly lucrative feature in the first two Back to the Future movies, but this was largely overshadowed by Coke’s continuing success.

In the 1980’s both Pepsi and Coke began using celebrity endorsements within their adverts – and this is where things begin to go a little wrong for Pepsi. While Coke utilised these endorsements to push their tried and tested messaging, Pepsi were hit with a string of unfortunate incidents which tarnished their reputation in the public eye.

In 1980, while filming an advert for a celebrity endorsement with Michael Jackson, there was an accident on set involving pyrotechnics that left Michael suffering with severe burns. He later became addicted to painkillers as a result of this accident. A few years later, Pepsi filmed an ad featuring David Bowie and Tina Turner. Shortly after the ad airing, Bowie was accused of sexual assault. In 1989, Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’ featured heavily in a Pepsi ad campaign, leading to numerous complaints about it’s anti-Catholic messaging. More recently in 2002, Pepsi pulled an advert featuring rapper ‘Ludacris’ among claims that he was immoral. They replaced him with The Osbournes, which further angered the public in a move that was lauded ‘racially insensitive’. As a result, Pepsi made an annual contribution of $1 million for three years to the Ludacris Foundation.

The unfortunate media scandals didn’t stop with celebrity endorsements however. In 1993, consumers began finding syringes inside cans of Pepsi across America. The scandal quickly made national headlines, and while the fault was traced to a woman working at a Pepsi factory in Colorado, the damage was done and consumer confidence plummeted.

By 1996, the Cola Wars were officially declared over. The Coca-Cola Company had officially taken both the number one and number two spots with Coke and Diet Coke, while Pepsi held at number three. Despite Pepsi’s acquisitions of other companies putting their share price above that of Coca-Cola Company’s, based on cola sales alone Coke came out on top.


So what can this teach us about a successful ads strategy?

  1. Devise a brand message and stick to it. One way that Coke were able to dominate the market was by solidifying themselves as a timeless household name by utilising recognisable brand mascots in the media eg; the Santa Claus adverts and the polar bear mascot.
  2. Be careful with your endorsements. While we can’t control people’s future actions, if you’re looking to celebrities or influencers to endorse your products or business, make sure you conduct your due diligence.
  3. Take advantage of new media and technology as soon as it’s available. For Coke and Pepsi, this took the form of TV adverts, celebrity endorsements and movie product placement – for businesses nowadays, it’s influencer marketing and new social media platforms. Stay ahead of the curve to keep your business relevant.

If you’re looking to create a blunder-free advertising campaign but you’re not sure where to start, look no further than Cloudworkz! Our team of advertising specialists can devise and implement a stellar advertising strategy which will put you in front of your ideal audience. For more information, take a look at our website or contact us:


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