What we can all learn about the art of business from Pepsi’s epic war with Coke and Apple’s public dust-ups with Microsoft.
Not long ago I spoke with a group of teenagers about branding. Soon enough the subject turned toward Coca-Cola. For my own curiosity, I asked them who they considered Coke’s main enemy. Of course, I was expecting them to state the obvious–Pepsi. Instead the room went kind of quiet. No one was sure.
The hyper competitiveness of the Coke-Pepsi dynamic, which I grew up with, was unknown to them. I tried jogging their memories by mentioning Michael Jackson strutting his stuff in a glittering black jacket, singing “I’m Bad.” Nothing. So I said: “Remember the ad, the one where Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire?” They did not.
And yet, to this day, retired executives at both beverage companies claim that the real reason why their brands achieved world dominance was, in the fighting words of one executive, “Every day we went to work, we went to war.” Had Pepsi and Coke not had each other, the chances that their brands would spread to more than 100 countries around the world would have been very slim.
AS SOCIAL CREATURES, WE’RE HARDWIRED TO CONGREGATE IN GROUPS, SHARING OPINIONS, FRIENDS, AND ENEMIES. THE MORE POLARIZED WE BECOME, THE STRONGER WE FEEL A SENSE OF BELONGING.
Pepsi and Coke are not alone. From the very beginning, the tech powerhouse Apple positioned their products in direct opposition to IBM. And when IBM no longer posed a threat, they took on Microsoft. At almost every opportunity Steve Jobs had to talk in public, he would subtly, and often not so subtly, run down his competition. Today, if we look at where IBM and Microsoft are in relation to Apple, the results of that tactic (among many others) pretty much speak for themselves.
But what happens when the enemy is no longer? It’s hard for Apple to continue claiming its underdog position. Those “I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC” commercials have lost their relevance. No one is about to identify with Apple as an underdog since the company has become the biggest and, arguably, the most powerful brand in the world. Ironically, Samsung is now mimicking the Mac-PC tactic but targeting Apple. And in yet another twist on the same idea, Samsung has become the largest cell phone manufacturer, outstripping both Apple and Nokia. Nokia, for its part, is now playing the underdog to a degree, with ads that seem to take on Apple (and maybe just about every other smartphone to come before the Lumia 900).
While speaking with the kids who were too young to remember the Pepsi-Coke wars, I realized that it’s important for a brand to keep the focus on their enemy in the public arena. That passionate opinion that people once held for either Coke or Pepsi in the 1970s and ’80s has faded from consciousness as the enmity melted into oblivion and both brands thrived.