Coke and Pepsi

Coke’s Plan to Teach the World to Sing Is Almost Complete

Earlier this month, Coca Cola announced that it to open its first bottling plant in Myanmar – the nation formerly known as Burma. This now leaves just two countries in the world – Cuba and North Korea – where the brand is not officially available.

The Myanmar launch presents Coca Cola with an interesting challenge. Here is a market that not only has no idea what Coke tastes like (sweet, fizzy, vaguely fruity) but one without any previous exposure to advertising either.

I’ve no doubt that Coke will succeed, but I think the manner in which it will how achieve that success is very interesting, because it also tells us a lot about ourselves.

There have been other colas available in Myamar for many years; Max Cola and Star Cola for example. I imagine they don’t taste all that different to Coke, but whether they do or not doesn’t matter at all. Nor does the fact that Coca Cola needs to be served chilled and Myanmar is a tropical country where domestic electricity is in short supply.

Coca Cola is well aware of this, so on a practical level each bottle of Coke in Myanmar will come with instructions on the correct way to ‘enjoy’ the product and, by implication, the essential tools required to do that – electricity, a fridge, some ice – which are not widely available. Thus the second issue is boxed off: ‘What do you mean you didn’t enjoy it? Well it’s probably your fault for not serving it properly. We did warn you.’

Coke’s inevitable triumph – and it is inevitable – will in fact have nothing to do with what the real thing tastes like (The Product). It will be down to what the people of Myanmar can be made to believe The Real Thing stands for (The Brand).

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are long standing arch-rivals, but in terms of their chemical composition composition they are virtually identical. Despite this, people commonly express a strong preference for one over and above the other. A 2004 study into how our perception of the brands shapes our preferences was carried out at the Baylor College of medicine in Houston USA. In the experiment, one group of subjects was given Coke and Pepsi anonymously without any branding or indication as to which was which, while the second group was given branded versions of the colas to try. During the tastings, the subjects were given MRI scans to determine if anything different was happening in their brains. In the anonymous task, brain scans revealed that the group was relying exclusively upon sensory information to inform their preference, however scans revealed that the group with the branded products were also using a different parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which plays an important role in the formation of new memories about experienced events. This showed that brand knowledge was biasing preference decisions.

And it’s not just cola. As we stroll through the supermarket aisles, with several thousand different brands on display, it’s easy to reach out and put whichever seems to be speaking to us into our basket, without ever stopping to consider why we’re doing it.

The next time you’re out shopping, try asking yourself why you’ve chosen to each particular item over all the competitors. You might be surprised how difficult you it is to come up with an answer.

What North Korea and Cuba are holding out against is not bottles of pop, but a ruthlessly efficient system for communicating ideas and making emotional bonds with people: a system that makes the frankly ludicrous notion that sweet, vaguely fruity fizzy drinks can have ‘values, heritage and history’ an unremarkable fact of life.

So where now the people of Myanmar thought, ‘I’m thirsty – I need a drink!’ many will soon start to think, ‘I’m thirsty – I need a Coke!’

Which is of course, the title of the song that Coke has been teaching the rest of the world to sing.

This article by Steve McKevitt was originally published on Huffigdon Post. Click here to see all Steve’s Huffingdon articles.