Last Updated: December 7, 2020

The average soft drink vending machine bombards consumers with choices. Would you prefer a cola or a fruit soda? Do you want diet or something full flavored? Despite all these choices, people tend to pick a favorite brand and stick with it for years. They consume gallons of a particular soda while largely ignoring the other flavors for sale. Offer a passionate soda drinker a sample of a competing brand with a nearly identical product and they are likely to reject it outright.

The reason for this has less to do with taste, and more to do with subtle and careful marketing on the part of soft drink makers. The choice of a soda is as much about who you are as what you want to drink. Soda makers calibrate every aspect of their marketing- from their packaging, to their slogans, to the music that plays over their commercials- to create an identity around their products.

The selection of one brand over another represents a desire to associate with that brand; to adopt a brand’s perceived qualities as your own. The happy, healthy, and thoroughly refreshed actors who appear in soda ads become idealized figures for the viewers at home. When a consumer selects a soda, it has as much to do with psychology as with thirst.

The Psychology of Marketing Soft Drinks

Brand and CommercialExplanation of AdvertisementDemographicsPsychological Response Elicited
Coca-Cola “Jump into Summer”A group of young men and women are shown swimming, laughing, and having fun on the beach while they drink cokes. At the end of the ad, they are shot into the air out of a huge, inflatable coke bottle.Men and women age 15-35Fun: The ad targets the youth market by focusing on happy, young people having carefree fun. The suggestion is that Coke is the perfect complement to summer-time festivities and will provide energy and refreshment while being delicious and universally accepted.
Diet Pepsi “Think Young, Drink Young”The model Cindy Crawford is shown buying a Diet Pepsi from a vending machine and drinking it in slow motion. Two boys admire her from behind a fence. When Crawford returns to her car, we see that she has two small children in car seats.Women 25-50Envy: The ad frames Diet Pepsi as a soda that can be enjoyed without gaining weight. The spying boys and the young children at the end suggest to viewers that Diet Pepsi can help them remain attractive as they get older and start families.
Mountain Dew “Do Something Different”Two young men are chased by Chuck Norris through a variety of action movie scenarios. After Norris catches them, he creates an internet meme showing him beating the young men up.Men 15-35Humor: The ad uses the renewed popularity of Chuck Norris to connect with tech savvy, slightly nerdy young men. The slogan “Do Something Different” combined with their zeitgeist mining commercial frame Mountain Dew as an “alternative” soda that understands its customers.

Selecting a soft drink

Soda is a unique product because it has no explicit purpose. Drinking a can of coke is not necessary to get through the day. Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control, half of Americans drink at least one sugary drink every single day. Soda makers are finding clever ways to convince customers to use their products in huge numbers.

Most Popular Soft Drinks in 2011

  1. Coke
  2. Diet Coke
  3. Pepsi
  4. Mt. Dew
  5. Dr. Pepper
  6. Sprite
  7. Diet Pepsi
  8. Diet Mt. Dew
  9. Diet Dr. Pepper
  10. Fanta

Source: Special issue: U.S. beverage results for 2011. (2012, March 20). Beverage Digest, 61(6)

Soft drink marketing is all about presenting images of fun. A soda, the ads suggest, is the perfect complement to any good time, whether it is a trip to the beach or an evening at the movies. After a game of softball, the team members gather around to enjoy a Coke and share in the merriment of a win. Drinking the soda is presented as a way to access this good time. Consumers are invited to live vicariously through the happy actors on-screen.

A number of soft drink ads also make a conscious effort to normalize the act of drinking soda. Rather than being an occasional indulgence, soda is presented as something that is permissible and natural to drink all day long. It is framed as a drink that will make any situation better whether it is a before work pick me up or a refreshing addition to dinner. This suggests to consumers that it is a good idea to drink a soda any time you’re thirsty, tired, or bored.

One aspect of soda marketing that often gets obscured is its effects on people’s health. Diet sodas are presented as slimming and inconsequential, while full calorie sodas often highlight their potential to energize and revitalize consumers. These ads never feature people burping or suffering from caffeine headaches. The message is that the consumption of soda can fit seamlessly into a normal diet.

Storytelling and marketing

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Marketing is often more about constructing a narrative than highlighting the most impressive qualities and features of a product. Consumers respond to a brand because they want to participate in the image of that brand. In their paper “When Consumers and Brands Talk: Storytelling Theory and Research in Psychology and Marketing,” Arch G. Woodside and his coauthors examine the ways that marketers create archetypal narratives that consumers can insert themselves into. (Woodside, A. G., & Suresh, S. (2008). Psychology & Marketing, 25(2), 97-145. ).

Published in Psychology and Marketing, the paper dedicates part of its focus to the way that Mountain Dew utilizes a “slacker archetype” to appeal to a certain demographic of young men. The authors write that:

“Mountain Dew reinvented the wild man (prior campaign focus for the brand) as a slacker. In these spoofs of extreme sports, all presented as do-it-yourself quests, the brand asserted that the real men of America’s free-agent frontier weren’t the most buff or competitive athletes, but the creative guys who pursued their stunts as whimsical art.”

The ads for Mountain Dew are not at all about the way the soda tastes, but entirely about the identity of the young men who drink it. Mountain Dew has focused their branding efforts on creating a narrative of masculinity that appeals to a wide swath of independent thinking young men. By poking fun at the amped up masculine images that appear in most ads, Mountain Dew was able to cultivate a cynical, culture savvy identity for their consumers. That identity, more than any feature of the product, is what is responsible for Mountain Dew’s success.

Marketing Soda to Children

Numerous studies have shown a link between increased soda consumption and rising rates of childhood obesity. According to The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, aggressive marketing tactics directed toward children are directly responsible for sugary drinks becoming a staple of many children’s diets. In 2010, soda makers collectively spent $580 million on advertising, much of this directed at teens and children. Federal laws have been put in to place to limit the availability of soda in schools.

Source: (November 2011). Sugary drinks F.A.C.T.S. The Yale Rudd Center Health Digest

The importance of psychology in marketing

Marketing utilizes a careful combination of pictures, text, music, and atmosphere to illicit a psychological response in consumers. To learn more about how marketers use psychology, explore other aspects of consumer psychology.

The Ubiquity of Coke

Coca-Cola has over 500 brands and 3,500 different product offerings. These range from sodas, to energy drinks, and soy-based beverages popular in Asia. If you were to drink one new Coke product every day it would take 9 years to try them all. The marketing team at Coca-Cola is tasked with creating a unique identity for each one of these brands and communicating that image to customers. With so many products available, Coke can appeal to any consumer, regardless of who they are or what they are thirsty for.


Related careers

There is intense competition between the major soda makers. Brands like Coke and Pepsi that offer nearly identical products have to find ways to differentiate themselves from their competition. Marketers rely on the complicated science of consumer psychology to help establish clear identities for their brands. In order to understand the minds of their customers, marketers rely on professionals like these.

Packaging Specialist: Packaging specialists are responsible for designing all of the packaging related to a soft drink. This ranges from the can, to the case of soda, and the vending machine where it is sold. The way a product looks is important because it communicates subtle psychological messages to the consumer about what the brand stands for. Packaging designers have to identify and cultivate the aesthetic that will most appeal to the target customer. Learn more about packaging designers.

Social Media Specialist: Social media specialists design ads to run on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. These are an integral component of any modern ad campaign and go a long way to create the identity of a brand. Social media, like any form of advertising, relies on psychological insights about the customer to create ads and interactive experiences that will engage users. Additionally, the data gathered from social media sites can shed light on what customers want and like. Learn more about social media strategists.