Who Invited Heineken to the Cola Wars?

As Pepsi licks its wounds after a failed Coke copycat, Heineken takes the spoils

In 1971 Coca-Cola released its renowned “Hilltop” ad featuring young people from around the world singing of harmony and peace shared over a bottle of Coke. The spot was an instant success, jumping to the top of the charts and anchoring Coca-Cola’s place in iconic brand history. In the ensuing decades, marketers have lauded this as a classic example of brands providing a relevant cultural voice with simple, authentic messaging. During a time of deep sociopolitical unrest spurred by the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and economic recession, Coke offered relief in the form of a folksy jingle and shared values.

Just a few weeks ago Pepsi made a now infamous attempt to do the same. On the surface, the formula appeared flawless. Much like the 1970s, today’s America is divided, facing sociopolitical discontent in the aftermath of a contentious presidential election, recent economic recession, and resurgence of civil rights activism. What is a brand to do in a climate such as this? Follow Coke’s lead — capitalize on social dissension by positioning your brand as a sorely needed olive branch.

… Except it didn’t work this time. Pepsi faced instant backlash, pulled the spot within 24 hours, and issued a public apology. In the four weeks since, Pepsi has struggled to move past the blunder. Last week the conversation resurfaced with Heineken’s release of the spot “Worlds Apart.” While “Worlds Apart” has faced its own criticism, the ad has been widely praised for its successful integration of politics and branding in contrast to Pepsi.

So why did Pepsi fail where Heineken flourished? Why didn’t Coke’s proven formula withstand today’s sociopolitical climate? The short answer: It’s not 1971.

The Strategy: Cultural Branding

Giving credit where credit is due, Pepsi had the right instinct. History’s most iconic brands have adopted a cultural branding strategy that addresses acute social contradictions. For example, Budweiser gained popularity in the 1980s by celebrating unbridled masculinity during a time that men were grappling with the rise of feminism and loss of jobs to offshore manufacturing. Chipotle experienced explosive growth in the early 2000s by addressing cultural contradictions around health, obesity, mass food production, and sustainability.

Pepsi failed not because it strived to address cultural tension. For better or worse, brands have successfully capitalized on society’s deepest needs for decades. The brand failed because it chose to address the wrong tensions.

The Vision: Solving the Right Problem

Much has been said about the divided state of our nation. Like Coke in 1971, Pepsi thought this was the cultural tension to address. The nation is divided, let’s give the “other side” a Pepsi and watch our troubles melt away. But this was Pepsi’s fatal flaw. Pepsi stopped digging at its very first insight. Had the brand team explored a little deeper, they would have realized that our division is not today’s core cultural problem, it is only a symptom.

The nation’s fundamental tension lies in the why behind its division. Why are we so divided? … Paradoxically, it’s because we are so connected.

The effects of the internet, social media, and smartphones have been debated at nauseam over the last decade. Of course, the impact of these technological changes varies from person to person, and much is still left to be understood. But one thing that can be stated with certainty: Hyper connectivity has bred deep social and cultural dissonance:

These are the reasons why we’re divided. These are the tensions that need addressed. Our breadth of access hasn’t kept pace with our depth of understanding. We can acquire more information, hear more stories, identify more needs, and utilize more resources, and yet we lack the tools to emotionally and relationally process this change.

How do we #staywoke or #makeamericagreatagain while processing the complexities of those we love not being on the same journey as we are? How do we feed our souls with rich, meaningful relationships with those around us while also drawing our circle wider in an ever-expanding definition of “neighbor?” How do we take advantage of accomplishing more at a faster pace without sacrificing time-honored practices of patience, self-control, and humility?

This is what Heineken understood that Pepsi didn’t. It’s not 1971. It’s not simply that our nation is divided. It’s that we are grappling with complicated, nuanced tension in the age of information in a way that no generation before us has ever had to do at such massive and rapid scale.

Pepsi took a surface level understanding of our culture’s deepest vulnerabilities and inadvertently mocked them with reductionist solutions, tokenized identities, and co-opted struggles. The nation overwhelmingly found it offensive, and rightly so. Police brutality cannot be solved with a can of soda from Kendall Jenner, and Pepsi’s brand team cannot address social unrest without even bothering to understand the problem.

The Execution: How Heineken Got It Right

In contrast, Heineken demonstrated a more refined competence of core social tensions and offered a subtle, compassionate approach to addressing them. If the problem is that we lack the emotional and relational tools to engage in our divisions, what can brands offer to help? In “Worlds Apart” Heineken demonstrated an acute understanding of some of our deepest social needs and reflected a message that resonated with three core approaches:

  1. Particularity: Heineken didn’t attempt to gloss over complex social issues. While Pepsi sanitized social justice movements with generic protest posters that read “Join the Conversation” and “Peace,” Heineken addressed specific, relevant topics such as transgender rights, feminism, and climate change. It is in the particularities — the specific acknowledgement of someone’s struggles and passions — that people feel most deeply understood. To resonate with profound meaning, brands must be willing to be bold in this way.
  2. Nuance: Heineken provided nuance that humanized individuals across the sociopolitical divide. In a four-minute video, we learn of a transgender woman’s story of serving in the military and an antifeminist’s journey experiencing homelessness. Though brief, these vignettes feel real and moving. In contrast, Pepsi’s cursory shots of a young woman in a hijab, LGBTQ+ friends, and various people of color feel gratuitous and shallow.
  3. Authority: Heineken painted a genuine picture of the role the brand can play within this social tension. Difficult conversations lubricated with an adult beverage is an approachable, realistic way to begin the process of bridging divides and building meaningful relationships. Conversely, an over-produced soda offering from an uninspiring reality TV star leaves us wanting.

Coca-Cola’s “Hilltop” will forever remain in business archives as a classic success story of branding resonance amidst sociopolitical unrest. Only time will tell if Pepsi has etched a space in these same archives as a contrasting warning to heed, or if Heineken can continue the momentum it has established. Today’s marketers would do well to continue to reflect on these lessons, taking care to authentically understand and address social tensions as they strive to build this generation’s next iconic brands.