Pepsi’s appeal to liberals probably started with the campaign called “The Choice of a New Generation,” which ran from 1984 to 1991. Pepsi didn’t just focus on a demographic; it reflected a mindset that young people tend to have, Liberal and rebellious. Specifically, Pepsi concentrated on those who are low in the Moral Foundation of Respect for Authority. (For those who don’t know, I am referencing Moral Foundation Theory as described by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind.) Most recently, this skew towards Liberals was illustrated in the Kylie Jenner Pepsi commercial that incorporated an anti-authority pretend Black Lives Matter march. That particular commercial didn’t work well, for reasons I will discuss shortly.
Despite this correct match of mindset, age group, and an Ethical Zone, it seems that Pepsi hasn’t been successful in attracting the young people of today. According to data from Connexity cited in that article in Adweek, Pepsi’s largest audience is those over sixty-five. How can that be? Aren’t Liberals young? This is probably because they are attracting Liberals, regardless of age. Why aren’t they attracting young people? Both Liberals (and young people) crave novelty and are drinking the latest hip drinks like kombucha and not the boring colas that have been around since forever. Pepsi has recognized this and is attempting to capitalize on it by acquiring newer brands such as SoBe and Naked Juice. But Pepsi’s customer base for its flagship brand seems to be limited to the aging Liberals who still retain a taste for colas.
By pursuing this strategy, Pepsi is experiencing the effects of the inherent tension of targeting Liberals: Pepsi is more attractive to those with Liberal sensibility than Coke, but it is never going to satisfy the Liberal need for novelty. While the data firm Connexity recommended that Pepsi pursue young people, as an established brand that is probably not possible. Pepsi has successfully emotionally branded, but the branding has an inherent limit to growth.
The tension between a large brand and the relatively low level of Respect for Authority among its Liberal user base is also illustrated in the reaction to the Pepsi Kylie Jenner campaign. Instead of feeling that Pepsi identified with its sensibilities, Liberals felt that Pepsi had co-opted the movement, attempting to use it to sell a product. Liberals have a bullshit detector for companies “taking advantage” of an underprivileged group, which was activated by this commercial.
This is a “crime” among Liberals. A similar issue came up as part of the reaction to Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign, that this was just being done to make money. Kaepernick defused the issue by donating his proceeds to charity; Nike hasn’t. Being co-opted is a theme; it also comes up when big brand companies buy hip smaller brands. Pepsi is on a difficult path. Pepsi thought they were being on trend, but they ran into a marketing landmine they didn’t know existed—and the explosion backfired on them.
Let’s move to Coke. According to that same data source, the Coke brand has the reverse skew. Its customer base is younger (the largest demographic group is thirty-five to forty-four) but skews right politically. Coke’s user base over-indexes Conservative by anywhere from ten to twenty-one percent. It also has a higher level of education than Pepsi. This is a mirror of Pepsi, another mismatch between age, education, and political skew. The correlations usually go the other way; in general, those more highly educated and younger skew Liberal. Coke’s pattern is the reverse. Huh? What’s going on here?
It could just be that it is a reverse of Pepsi, which still carries the long-term effect of the “Choice of a New Generation” campaign. Or it could be that Coke is the dominant brand and has done a better job of blocking and tackling than Pepsi. Their 2014 campaign with 250 of the most popular names on Coke cans and bottles was a brilliant tactic, considered to be one of the best-performing campaigns they have ever done. But their success among Conservatives also might be a long-term effect of the New Coke fiasco. For those who don’t remember, in 1986, Coke changed its formula to a sweeter profile, trying to take on Pepsi in a different way. It backfired, bigly. Conservatives (who crave consistency) were probably more troubled by the change than Liberals.
After the publicity storm, Coke overturned their decision and brought back “Original Coke.” By going back to the original formula, Coke cemented its lead among Conservatives. A long-term echo of this effect may still be playing out. And with Pepsi chasing Liberals, a Conservative cola drinker wouldn’t choose Pepsi because of the Belonging/Loyalty Moral Foundation. Thus, both products are politically branded. I doubt Coca-Cola expected their Original Coke decision to end up branding the drink for Conservatives, but that appears to have been what happened.