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The Pepsi Challenge

December 6, 2009

Tastings, even blind tastings, can be rigged.

Did I ever tell you that I studied marketing at the Wharton School?  Well, my absolute favorite part from Marketing 101 was the Harvard Business School case study involving the Pepsi Challenge.

It was brilliant.  Here is what I remember many many years later.

Coca-Cola was the market leader, by a significant margin.  Pepsi-Cola was no more serious a competitor than RC or a variety of other secondary brands.  That is, until Pepsi leveraged a powerful insight involving the physiology of taste: given a choice between small quantities of two items, people will naturally prefer the sweeter item.  Pepsi, which is sweeter than Coke, was a shoe-in.

And thus the Pepsi Challenge was born.  One summer, Pepsi went around with unmarked samples of the two colas, and asked people which they preferred.  When Pepsi won, and highlighted the results in its advertising, Coca-Cola panicked.  The market leader made several subsequent missteps that cost it its lead, from which the company was never able to recover.

If you go tasting, here are a couple of practical tips to keep in mind, pulled straight from the case study.

1) In a tasting you will prefer the sweeter thing.

I picked up this anecdote from my private tasting at Robert Mondavi with then-wine-educator Dyson Demara.

Dyson explained that most people think they like what they’ve been conditioned to like.  Americans have been told that the best wines are dry, and that sweet wines are for those with less refined palates.  Americans have been grossly misinformed about wine on many levels – but we’ll save that for later.

So people come to the winery looking to try their award-winning drier wines.  But at the end of the tasting, everyone is given a taste of the Mondavi dessert wine Moscato d’Oro.  And people LOVE it.  I was told that they sell more of it at the winery than anything else.

The problem is that the effect only lasts during the brief period of the tasting.  When you sit down to drink the sweeter thing, it may not be as pleasant after the first few sips.  Which brings us to point number two.

2) It is different to taste something than to drink it.

There are wines that are made to win awards.  They are beautiful, layered and multifaceted wines.  You could sit down with a glass of these wines for an hour, and sniff and swirl and taste and repeat, as you try to unlock all of the aromatics.  Some of them are so intense they will blow you into the back of your chair like a Michael Bay picture.

On some level, it is amazing that all of these come from grapes, yeast, wood and time.

These are characteristics of wines that were made to win awards.  And they are a lot of fun to taste.  But at the same time, much like the sweeter wine enjoyed at the winery, they may be a bit too much for everyday drinking.

For example, that taste of zinfandel may have been delicious at the wine store, but halfway through your first glass at home it’s a bit more jammy than you remember.  Or the chardonnay that curled your toes in joy at the winery just completely overwhelms any food you try to pair with it.

The bottom line is:
Just because you like it in a tasting, doesn’t mean you will like it later.

Still, I believe the exercise of a tasting is valuable.  But it is important to make sure the tasting is well structured, and to be aware of these pitfalls, so that the participants can get some good insights into their taste preferences.

Forewarned is forearmed.

In other news, today is my birthday.  In lieu of presents, please think of someone you know that might enjoy the FLB and tell them to check it out.  If you wanted to email everyone you know, well, that would be okay too.

Here’s a convenient link to Facebook.  A well-read wine post will really make my day.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2009 12:54 pm

    well, i hope the anniversary of your departure from the womb is wonderful! celebrate wisely and celebrate well.
    interesting post, as usual. i’d like to think that i’d prefer pepsi over coca-cola regardless of the sweetness factor, but who knows. your tips are good ones.

  2. December 6, 2009 4:09 pm

    I love Coca Cola. I never drink it, but I do love it. I try to stay away from HFCS and it’s not easy to find the versions with cane sugar.

    And Happy Birthday Mr. Fussy :)

    • Mirdreams permalink
      December 8, 2009 1:27 pm

      If that’s what you want seek it out during Passover (look for yellow caps) and you’ll get the pure cane.

  3. Kerosena permalink
    December 6, 2009 10:18 pm

    Happy Birthday!

    I remember taking the Pepsi Challenge at the Altamont fair as a kid. I knew there was some kind of gimmick, so while in line I kept a close eye on the soda service person. I noticed that she switched Coke and Pepsi with each new taster-Coke left, Pepsi right, then back for the next taster. I think I wanted to choose Pepsi, so I followed her pattern when it was my turn. I chose Coke, mostly because she had observed my careful stake-out and knew exactly what I was up to.

  4. corksandcaftans permalink
    December 7, 2009 5:36 pm

    Excellent points about wine tasting. It’s so true. Also astonishing is the wine competitions where the same wine (in different bottles, with fancy labels and stupid labels) wins both the highest award and the awesome distinction of “undrinkable,” depending on that label. Dyson was totally right—and that truth is only enhanced by labels—both figurative and literal ones. (Hey, I’m blowing my own mind, because this works for clothing, too! Corks and Caftans strikes again!) :)


  5. September 20, 2011 2:37 pm

    Pepsi is sweeter? Really? I’ve always tasted Pepsi as more purely cola-tasting, while Coke tastes very sugary to me, very sweet. Maybe I have weird taste buds.

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