The other day I was talking with somebody about brand identity, the way in which we form loyalties to company brands. 'Brand' is a term that gets thrown around a lot in business and marketing circles, of course, and it's long been a fascinating concept for me. That's probably because, particularly as a child but to a lesser extent even today, I've always been one to patronize certain products and companies over and over again. Sometimes there are good reasons. Sometimes there aren't - like when I pathetically resorted to duplicity simply to prove to the world that I preferred Coke to Pepsi. Which, as it happens, wasn't even true.
Many of us remember the successful marketing campaign Pepsi waged in the early 1980s. Challenging viewers to take a blind taste-test against Coke went at their more popular rival soft drink in the best way possible: by attacking the mystique itself. A recent study named Coca-Cola as the most popular worldwide brand, and I think it was probably true back then as well. A lot of people probably have been loyal to Coke over the years versus Pepsi for reasons other than the taste of the cola itself. Coke has always seemed like the more original and therefore authentic soft drink. Its very name is used as a verb denoting not just the brand, but the thing itself. A 'coke' means a cola just as to 'xerox' means to make copies or a 'kleenex' can mean any tissue.
As a kid, I picked up on and responded strongly to that undercurrent long before I knew anything about marketing. I was fiercely loyal to Coca-Cola versus Pepsi. I also felt the same about McDonald's versus Burger King, Ford versus Chevrolet, and a host of other corporate brand showdowns. I was an advertiser's dream, buying into certain brands unequivocally and committed myself to them like a teenager in 1941 eager to volunteer for the draft. And while today I'm of course a little less naive as an adult to the insipidity of the corporate machine and the sometimes not so inspiring realities behind brand making, I still am a sucker for certain companies' work, deserving or not, be it BMW or Sony or Apple.
But back to the Pepsi Challenge. Not only was this campaign waged on TV, where people were of course shown to choose Pepsi over Coke in mass movement taking place across America, but the company actually embraced a grassroots approach in which Pepsi Challenge booths were held at a host of festivals and fairs around the country. Each year in July my small hometown, McMinnville, held its annual "Turkey Rama", a three-day fair with main street closed to traffic and lined with stands from various local businesses, pronto pup (a.k.a. "corn dog") stands operated by local Elks, Lions and Kiwanis club members, and the usual assortment of Captain Funtastic carnival rides like The Scrambler (my personal favorite), The Sky Diver (a ferris wheel with spinning carriages), and The Spider (which I nearly barfed on during my one and only childhood ride).
I was very excited to see there was a Pepsi Challenge booth. This was the chance to show the Coca-Cola Company and its current spokesman, Mean Joe Greene of my beloved Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers (I carried his autograph around in a padlocked briefcase, but still managed to lose it), that I was a fellow guzzler of Coke. If I dared to willingly drink Pepsi, I reasoned, it would inevitably be a slippery slope until I committed that even greater horror of horrors: becoming a Dallas Cowboys fan. I had to show what side I was on.
But this was of course a blind taste test. After standing in line for several minutes, my heart beating out of my chest with nervousness before this moment of truth at Turkey Rama, I sat down at the little yellow booth with two unmarked Dixie cups of cola. ('Dixie cup' being another brand that's crossed over from proper noun into a catch-all regular synonym for any tiny paper cup.) I swirled the bubbly fluid of each sample in my mouth like a vintner sizing up his new batch of Merlot. I wasn't thinking about which I liked better, but which was more likely to be Coke. I remember the panic setting in as I realized I couldn't tell any difference. I'd have to just guess.
"You chose...Pepsi Cola!" I still remember the way the woman from the Pepsi Challenge booth jumped up an octave when she named her employer's brand as my selection. Her happiness at another conquest claimed for Pepsi burned into my young psyche like carbonated soda will corrode a penny.
But I hadn't worshiped the swirling red-and-white logo only to go down without a rematch. Heading to the back of the Pepsi Challenge line, pronto pup lunches and sneaker sales at Clubhouse Athletics be damned. This time I was determined to choose Coke.
And that's when you could say I either (a) caught a break, or (b) became even more desperate and diabolical. While standing in line, I noticed that the woman conducting the Pepsi Challenge was simply switching the Coke and Pepsi samples back and forth without any variation. As I neared the testing seat, I carefully monitored the rhythm of sample-switching with laser-like focus. I still was worried as I swirled the samples again, thinking I could be the case where she finally abandoned her simplistic switching pattern. But then I heard her voice say with a dourness that was music to my ears, "You chose...oh, Coca-Cola."
And with that, I had safely proved my mettle to my Coca-Cola overlords. But I'd done so with a George Costanza-like ruthlessness and amorality. Or maybe I should say George Bush-like. After all, what I did to Pepsi in about 1982, he did to the country in 2000, and possibly 2004. As it happens, I'm now drinking what seems like several gallons of caffeine free Diet Pepsi per week -- or whichever brand happens to be on sale. I'm not exempt from brand worship, though. As I write this post from an antique PC with the speed of a tortoise, I dream not of how the Apple I plan to buy will work more efficiently for me, but how cool it'll look on my desk, and how I'll be aligned with a perceived cooler, hipper, more loyal customer base than the likes of HP and Compaq and Microsoft. Or then again, maybe it all comes back to the fact that my first computer was an Apple II Plus on which I played many a game of Frogger.