Who Cares More, Coke or Pepsi?

Image by Orin Zebest

Much has been said about Pepsi’s falling market share and its social media driven Refresh cause marketing effort. Extremists have dubbed Pepsi Refresh as the iconic symbol of failure for social media as a marketing mechanism. Like many conversations about social media, this view is too simplistic. It fails to acknowledge several key issues, including product weaknesses, the fact that PR and advertising were well integrated into the effort, and the debatable use of cause marketing as the primary thrust behind Refresh. Meanwhile primary competitor Coca Cola continues to widen the gap with its marketing and quieter CSR initiatives.

The lack of a tangible theory of change, the over-focus on PR 2.0 participation metrics, and generally a failure to report the results of its community investments, lead one to question the authenticity of Pepsi Refresh. The market has been repeatedly told about the great marketing successes, and in context, there’s a notable under-emphasis on the social good results from Pepsi. On the cause side, nonprofits who have won grants have grumbled about the lack of post-award support from Pepsi.

Because Pepsi Refresh did not have a tangible theory of change, a measurable approach towards social good, one can conclude that these outcomes are natural. They also show a lack of understanding about corporate social responsibility, authenticity and social media. In short, now that the fanfare is over, what good did the company achieve, and how do people feel about their participation in the campaign since the primary reported result is that they posted about Pepsi Refresh?

Social good campaigns only work when people feel the company genuinely cares, and when social media is used that participants feel their contributions have had a societal impact. Pepsi has not successfully communicated either outcome. On the contrary, Pepsi’s approach to reporting Refresh results have been short sighted and undermined some of the good will built with community investments.

In fact, when closely examining Refresh’s “social good” and market leader Coca-Cola’s CSR efforts, one cannot help but question which soda company really cares more? Coke has taken incredible strides in water stewardship, and while it doesn’t market this activity, it actively communicates its strategy to resolve an issue that its products directly impact. It works with environmental partners, and reports back on lessons learned.

Let’s be clear, from a holistic standpoint, Coke’s CSR efforts are not ideal and leave a lot to be desired. They don’t even use many of these efforts to promote themselves, but at least the company works towards tangible end goals. There’s an authenticity to Coke’s efforts that one does not get from Refresh.

In considering corporate social good it seems that quiet authenticity is more effective than fanfare in the long term. The hare loses to the tortoise. The primary reason why is not the method, but the intent and purpose of waging social good. Who do you think cares more, Coke or Pepsi?


  • After watching the documentary Tapped I am not sure that Coke truly does care about water. Unless, of course, that documentary changed their stance.

    I have also read about the Pepsi Refresh product and its lack of post grant support.

    I think it’s still hard for big business to communicate like the little guys but i think that’s what people want and expect. They seem to always be looking too big instead of too human. Like everything needs to be on a huge scale when maybe scaling back is the proper angle.

    I do prefer the Coke angle here. Do good stuff and let the conversation happen organically. Forced conversations never end well.

    • It is hard, there’s so many hoops to jump. Thanks for that reminder. It’s easy to critique, it’s hard to do… It just goes to show you how incredible jobs like the one Dell does are really just quite remarkable.

      • It seems to me as a consumer it’s still pretty easy to say, “I like what Pepsi is trying to do…but I still prefer the taste of Coke.” And when it comes down to it, isn’t that what it’s about? I’m with Chris on the angle of letting the conversation happen organically. Great analysis and questions, Geoff.

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  • Geoff – based on what you’ve described here, I’d have to choose Coke :-D

    They fact that they don’t aggressively promote their CSR efforts says they’re not whoring out causes to sell soda.

    And the fact that they work with environment partners and report back results say that they’re sincerely interested in putting the cause before commerce.

    • I’d agree with that. I think Coke is serious and authentic about the work it does engage in. It rings true! Hope you are doing well, John!

      • Geoff, I agree with John too. In addition to what he stated so well, I think Coke has been more successful at creating goodwill among young people (the largest consumer group of soda). Coke’s “Happiness Machine” video, for example, better targets young people than Pepsi Refresh and is a case study on using the power of surprise to establish a deep emotional connection with viewers that moves them into action (passing on the video to make it go viral). Coke’s not pretending to save the world with the “Happiness Machine” video but is making 3.4 million people (to date) want to hug a coke machine for spreading happiness. Since the video cost $50,000 to make, these brand warm and fuzzies came at a cost of about a penny per view (to date), a much better ROI I suspect than the more expensive Pepsi Refresh.

  • in a niche where it’s hard to imagine not running into the brand many times, I’m finding that I see more talk about Refresh than any actual marketing by Pepsi or Coke.

    Pepsi wins for getting attention in the social media pundit world. Long term the Refresh Project is good for the brand, but I didn’t see where someone would say “Pepsi gave away some money, I’m switching my cola brand”

    Outside of that, I’d like to see what metrics they were going for.

    • It seems their primary metric has been PR, not sales or social good. At the same time — while I see what you are saying about the niche — in the larger consumer market spanning all media, Coke is increasing its sales lead. Thus all the questioning.

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