Digital is the New Rock’n’Roll, or, The Cola Wars in Cyberspace

Jack Blog

July 3rd, 2012 By Jack Morton

Today’s Cola Wars bear similarity to yesteryear’s, but what they carry on in function—to create experiences that make one cola brand more compelling than another—has changed almost entirely in form. Indeed, the introduction of the Internet has transformed the Cola Wars. No longer are they about marketing from a company to individuals, but about fostering two-way connections between the company and the individual, as well as connecting individuals to each other.

Take, for instance, Coca-Cola’s “Doc Pemberton” Twitter account. The account commemorates what would have been the 180th birthday of John Pemberton, the inventor of the original formula of Coca-Cola. The account is updated daily, and responds frequently to the tweets of its followers. Coke uses the account to play up its whimsical side by placing “Pemberton” in a context his 19th-century sensibilities would not have understood: “Have you seen my photos? I am still getting the hang of this ‘camera.’  #WorldTravels”

Pepsi, meanwhile, launched their new homepage, Pepsi Pulse, a pop culture news aggregator that combines tweets, articles, photographs, and, of course, information about Pepsi in an interactive format that seeks to link the Pepsi brand to the pop culture-following demographic they aim to serve. Content includes both user-submitted tweets that include the “#LiveForNow” hashtag, as well as videos of live Pepsi-sponsored performances.

What is obvious across these campaigns is that they serve highlight experiences around, rather than experiences with, their products. Doc Pemberton doesn’t feature cans of Coca-Cola front-and-center, rather, the Twitter account serves as a conduit through which people can connect to the company. Pepsi Pulse features only a small image of a soda can that does not stand out from the busy bustle of content on the site’s home screen. And this makes sense: the past couple years have marked the first in decades that American soft drink consumption has not increased, and public perception of the drinks’ health effects is shifting to recognize their detrimental nature in great quantities, with the most high-profile example being New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on large servings of soft drinks. In such an atmosphere, the emphasis on experience, rather than product, is essential.

One striking difference in the companies’ approaches to online experience calls into question what the best method for engagement in the new soda climate should be. Coca-Cola’s strategy encourages visitors to integrate their experiences into a routine: Pemberton’s tweets appear in a user’s Twitter feed, which they are presumably already checking to consume other content. By contrast, now seems intended to serve as a hub. Rather than producing and distributing content across other networks, Pepsi’s web strategy seems predicated on aggregating content. This is obvious when comparing the two companies’ websites—when juxtaposed with Pepsi’s, the Coca-Cola homepage looks spartan in comparison. Which approach is better? It’s tough to say, but scrolling through Pemberton’s tweets proves a far more natural experience than perusing the antiseptic collation of celebrity news and partner placements on Pepsi’s page. Brand experiences that enhance things we already do and therefore fit themselves into our days seem more likely to stick than ones that require us to rearrange our schedules to accommodate them.