Us Versus Them: Oppositional Brand Loyalty and the Cola Wars

Albert M. Muniz, Jr., DePaul University
Lawrence O. Hamer, DePaul University
[ to cite ]:
Albert M. Muniz, Jr. and Lawrence O. Hamer (2001) ,"Us Versus Them: Oppositional Brand Loyalty and the Cola Wars", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 355-361.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 355-361


Albert M. Muniz, Jr., DePaul University

Lawrence O. Hamer, DePaul University

C I avoid Coke whenever possible - I’m more of a Pepsi kind of girl

from a message posted to Usenet

Brand loyalty refers to a consumer’s attachment or devotion to a brand (Aaker 1991). Frequently investigated in terms response to brand marketing (Blackston 1995) or purchase behavior (Dyson, Faar and Hollis 1996), brand loyalty can actually encompass a great deal more (Fournier 1998(b); McAlexander and Schouten 1998). In fact, consumers can express their attachment and loyalty to a brand through a variety of thoughts and behaviors in a variety of settings. For example, consumers may express their loyalty in social settings by actively defending and promoting their brand as superior to a particular competitive offering.

It is relatively well-established that consumers derive meaning and identity from what and how they consume (Belk and Costa 1998; Celsi, Rose and Leigh 1993; Englis and Solomon 1995; Fournier 1998a; Schouten and McAlexander 1995). A more recently documented twist is that consumers may also define themselves in terms of what and how they do not consume (Englis and Solomon 1997; Fournier 1998(b); Hogg and Mitchell 1996; Hogg and Savolainen 1997; Wilk 1996). For example, Hogg and Savolainen (1997) found consumers use brand choices to mark both their inclusion and exclusion from various lifestyles. Essentially, consumers avoided those brands that they saw as defining membership in groups (yuppies) with which they did not identify. This suggests that a consumer’s loyalty toward any particular brand may be embedded in a larger set of brand constellations (Solomon and Assael 1987) and anti-constellations (Hogg and Mitchell 1996). In other words, loyal users of a given brand may derive an important component of the meaning of the brand and their sense of self from their perceptions of competing brands, and may express their brand loyalty by playfully opposing those competing brands. This phenomenon is termed oppositional brand loyalty.

This paper presents findings on consumer oppositional brand loyalty behavior in a social environment, Usenet newsgroups. Analyzing consumer messages posted to multiple newsgroups, it documents the tendency of oppositional brand loyalty among consumers of soft drinks, particulrly Coke and Pepsi. This opposition manifest itself in two ways. First, consumers of a particular product category define themselves by the brands they consume, as well as the brands they do not consume. Frequently these consumers would state the brands they actively avoided, as well as those that they sought. Second, these consumers express their opposition to these competing brands by initiating and participating in playful rivalries with consumers loyal to competing brands. These behaviors included insulting the competing brand and its consumers and challenging consumers of the other brand to defend their choice. During a one-month period of 1999, oppositional brand loyalty was evident in multiple Usenet newsgroups, devoted to a multitude of topics, all varying in their level of relevance to the product category of soft drinks.

Usenet, the Internet and the World Wide Web

The Internet [The Internet, as it is being used here in its most generic sense, refers to all the components of the worldwide computer network with which it is commonly associated: the World Wide Web, Usenet, and Internet Relay Chat.] is a series of global computer networks. First started as a medium for information exchange among the U.S. Military, these networks rapidly grew to include universities and researchers working all around the globe. Despite its origins as a medium for information exchange, the most powerful impetus for the growth of this medium derived from its ability to allow for social interaction among a widely dispersed group of people (Jones 1995; Rheingold 1993). One of the most widely used components of the Internet are Usenet newsgroups. Participants in Usenet can share their thoughts, experiences and information with millions of others from around the world.

Usenet, a globally distributed conferencing and discussion system, is a network of 75,000 computers that allow participants to exchange messages on over 15,000 different topics (Mclaughlin, Osborne and Smith 1995; Whittaker, Terveen, Hill and Cherny 1998). Over 24 million users worldwide ( participate in Usenet through Internet connections provided by universities, libraries, government agencies, businesses and commercial Internet providers such as America Online, Compuserve and WebTV. Usenet is heavily trafficked with more than 250,000 articles being posted to it daily ( A survey conducted by Georgia Tech’s Graphics, Visualization and Usability Center suggests that over forty-three percent of all Web users participate in Usenet newsgroups weekly (GVU WWW survey).

Usenet newsgroups function much like electronic bulletin boards. Each newsgroup is devoted to a particular topic ranging from very general ( - dealing with audio enthusiasts, hobbyists and recreationsists) to very specific (alt.politics.clinton - dealing with the policies and activities of President Bill Clinton). Participants post messages to these newsgroups, sending a message much like an email message, to that group. Posted messages are then distributed to other sites carrying that newsgroup and are made available to anyone accessing or subscribing to that newsgroup. Participants to these newsgroups can read and respond to any previously posted message or can initiate conversations on any topic relevant to the newsgroup’s focus. Newsgroup reading software, widely available both as part of world wide web software (Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Internet Explorer) or as stand alone applications for Windows (Agent), Macintosh (InterNews) and UNIX based systems (Pine), allow the reader to sort messages by topic, sender or time/date sent. Many of these programs are available as free shareware.


This research was ethnographic, naturalistic and observational (Adler and Adler 1994; Hammersley and Atkinson 1983). The content of consumer-generated documents (Lincoln and Guba 1985), posted to the public realm of Usenet newsgroups were analyzed (Hodder 1994). This approach has a benefit of capturing the way that consumers talk to one another about cnsuming brands. It observes the behavior and communications of consumers in a naturally occurring, social setting, one that is very similar in structure to conversational discourse (MacKinnon 1995). Moreover, this approach is consistent with methods applied in previous research on the dynamics of Usenet-based communication (MacKinnon 1995; Mclaughlin et al. 1995; Whittaker, Terveen, Hill and Cherny 1998). For example, McLaughlin et al. (1995) archived and analyzed several days of Usenet newsgroup data from five different newsgroups in order to develop a taxonomy of Usenet posting offenses (those that violated "netiquette" or acceptable Usenet protocol) and the subsequent group-based regulation of those infractions.

Data for the current project were collected using an online archive of newsgroup postings. Dejanews ( is a World Wide Web-based archive of articles posted to over 15,000 Usenet newsgroups (dejanews FAQ). Each article or posting is indexed and stored allowing for intricate Boolean-logic searches on keywords (of any word in the posting), subject headings, forums (i.e., different newsgroups), authors and dates posted. For example, a search on "wind-up toys" messages posted to newsgroup would produce a list of all the messages posted to that newsgroup that contained the words "wind-up toys."

For the purposes of the present study, a keyword search was used, searching for the occurrence of two brand names across all Usenet newsgroups during a one-month period in 1999. A search was conducted looking for all the messages containing both the keywords "Coke" and "Pepsi," occurring between February 1, 1999 and February 28, 1999. Coke and Pepsi were chosen as they are two widely consumed brands with a history of a rivalry, particularly in the content of their advertising (Pendegrast 1993). It was assumed that the rivalry between these two brands could impact consumer communication regarding soft-drink preference. Extrapolating from the findings of Hogg and Savolainen (1997), it was reasoned that consumers of one brand (i.e., Coke) might define their brand choice largely in opposition to the other brand (i.e., Pepsi). This search yielded 1,253 different messages that contained both the word Coke and the word Pepsi. The search results were presented ranked according to confidence with the most relevant messages listed first . [Relevance is based on strength of match of keywords (dejanews FAQ). Thus, messages with two instances of both keywords would provide a stronger match than messages in which both keywords occurred only once.]

The first 1000 messages were downloaded and examined. [For the purposes of the present study, only messages written in English were analyzed.] Not surprisingly, there was a lot of variation in how these two brand names were used in everyday communication. For example, a consumer might note in a somewhat detached manner that Coke and Pepsi both spent a lot of money on advertising. While interesting in their own right, such messages were not directly related to the focus of the study and were excluded from analysis. Messages in which one brand was pitted against another were downloaded and recorded for more detailed analysis. These included messages in which a posted message declared a consumer’s soft-drink choice relative to the competition, debased a competing brand, or challenged users of another brand to defend their choice. In order to better understand the context in which these message appeared (Hodder 1994), prior and subsequent messages in that thread were also downloaded. [A thread refers to all the messages posted by different users with the same subject heading. It is proper netiquette to include the subject header of a previous message when responding to that message of commenting on the same topic (McLaughlin et al. 1995). Frequently, several messages are posted to a thread, most referencing those messages that preceded them. Thus, if someone posts a message on the best vacations they have taken, several other people might respond with their thoughts on their favorite vacations, producing a thread of several messages.] These threads occasionally extended beyond the one-month period specified in the initial search and sometimes originated as a discussion of an unrelated topic. This enabled each instance of oppositional brand loyalty to be understood in terms of the messages on that topic immediately preceding it and those responses that followed it.

The corpus of messages forming the data of this investigation were analyzed in a manner consistent with previous investigations of Usenet based communication (MacKinnon 1995; McLaughlin et al. 1995; Whittaker, Terveen, Hill and Cherny 1998). The messages were read during the initial downloading to confirm that the relevant processes were evident. Some very preliminary interpretations, as well as areas to examine, were recorded at this time. Messages with evidence of some form of oppositional brandloyalty were read and re-read several times, along with the messages providing the context in which they appeared. Categories of oppositional brand loyalty were created, based on the form and degree of the opposition to competing brands. All the differing instances of oppositional brand loyalty were categorized to provide a better understanding of the phenomenon.


Oppositional brand loyalty was a spontaneous phenomenon evident in several different newsgroups. During a one-month period of 1999, oppositional brand loyalty behavior occurred independently in newsgroups devoted to a multitude of topics, all varying in their level of relevance to the product category of soft-drinks. Evidence of this behavior was found in fifty different newsgroups during February 1999. In some instances, several people would participate in these threads, in other cases only two or three. Table 1 provides a listing and brief content description of all the newsgroups in which evidence of oppositional brand loyalty behavior was found. These groups varied widely in both their topical focus and, more importantly, their relevance to the product category of soft drinks. For example, while the newsgroup alt.foods.cocacola (a discussion of all things Coke) is truly germane to the category of soft drinks, others such as (a support group for childless couples) and (a discussion of the survival game paintball) are decidedly less relevant. Despite the varying relevance of the newsgroups, this behavior was remarkably consistent.

Oppositional brand loyalty manifest itself in two closely related ways. In the first, and more subtle way, consumers would define their product category preferences not only by what they did consume, but also by what they did not consume. This behavior included frequently stating their preferences in terms of the brand they did not consume. Such preferences would often take the form of lists of brands sought and avoided. In the second way, these consumers would state their opposition to the competing brand and initiate playful rivalries with users of the competing brand. This behavior included degrading the other brand and challenging the users of that brand to defend their choice. Frequently, these others users would defend their choices, leading to an extended brand choice debate. In many instances, the first behavior would precede the second. That is, in many newsgroups, what started as a simple stating of preferences and anti-preferences would escalate to a more unabashed opposition. [A possible concern here is that such messages were posted by employees of the companies in question. While possible, it seems unlikely for two reasons. First, given the truly spontaneous nature of these messages, it seems unlikely that they were part of an orchestrated scheme. Many of these messages originated in discussions of unrelated topics. Second, and more importantly, the posting histories of all the participants quoted in this paper were investigated using the same archive from which the data used in this project were collected. Posting histories document all the newsgroups a particular author or email address have posted to. All of the participants cited in this paper posted to multiple newsgroups on a variety of topics beyond their choice of soft drink.] Both forms of oppositional brand loyalty are explored subsequently, as well as some other characteristics of this behavior.



There was a wide variety of ways in which these beverage brand choice conversations were started. For example, in the pokemon videogame group (, the conversation thread got started as participants were discussing aspects of the game. Apparently, one of the screens in this video game includes a giant bottle of Diet Coke in the background. A discussion of this screen image served as the basis for a discussion of soft-drink preferences. This discussion eventually progressed from soft-drink preferences to a prankish rivalry with the competing brands. In the newsgroup (devoted to fans of the singer Tori Amos), someone posted an informal questionnaire to the group, asking others to respond and tell a little about themselves. The form contained over fifty questions about, love, life, things spiritual and preferences for either Coke or Pepsi.

Subject: -O- Get to know me, get to know you

Date: 1999/02/06


So anyway, one of my friends sent me this. She’s always sending me these jokes, which gets really annoying, but this was cool. They’re some pretty basic questions, but try to have fun with it. I’ll start off, but you guys feel free to skip any yo don’t want to answer. I warn you though, it is kind of long. Enjoy!

NAME: Rojeania

BIRTH DATE: December 24, 1973


DO YOU CARE ABOUT THE WAY YOU LOOK: I do if I will be leaving my apartment.



Apparently, the author of the form felt that the choice of Pepsi versus Coke was revealing about the character of a person. Given that over two-hundred participants in the newsgroup completed the form, some supporting their choice with a sentence or two, it appears that others agreed that beverage preference was a non-insignificant descriptor of character. Similar forms using the Coke/Pepsi dichotomy as a descriptor variable were posted to (fans of the Scream series of movies), alt.gnashing-teeth (angry salespeople) and (a place for the pre-college set on the net). Such forms reveal that consumers of these brands do define themselves by what they do not consume, as well as what they do consume. Coke and Pepsi were recognized as being diametrically opposed.

In the (devoted to discussing collegiate football teams), the brand choice debate was started with a rather simple message.

Subject: Pepsi or Coke

Date: 1999/01/22


I’m in the minority, but my taste buds are kinder to Pepsi than Coke. I’m taking votes here. So far it’s Pepsi 1-0....

Fifteen other people participated directly in this thread, each posting their choice. Many provided a rational for their choice and kept cumulative score.

Frequently, as these soft-drink preference discussions progressed, the tendency toward rivalry would increase. One contributor might attempt to justify the choice of one brand over the other, prompting others to respond with their thoughts on why their brand choice was superior. Consider the following in which, the arrows (>) preceding the first six lines of text indicate that these lines are quoted from s previous message. [As is custom in Usenet communications, an individual responding to a specific preceding message will quote all or part of that message in the text of the current message, typically including the name and email address of the original poster. Such quoted text is typically blocked with arrows (>) or colons (:). This habit is fortunate as it provides a glimpse of what prompted the message.]

Re: My Favorite Soda (TR Re: I’ve found paradise!!!)

Date: 1999/02/03


On 3 Feb 1999 00:35:19 GMT, (Wallacd) wrote:

>I’m a Diet Coke junkie (I drink it for breakfast). I won’t drink Diet Pepsi

>(swill) and I always ask in a restaurant if they serve Coke or Pepsi. If it’s

>Pepsi, I order an ice tea.

I’m the same on the Coke vs. Pepsi thing, except I don’t drink the diet varieties. If Pepsi’s all they’ve got, I’ll drink just about *anything* else (and yes, iced tea is way up on the list).

Pepsi has that additional aftertaste thing going on that I just don’t like. Coke is more about straight-ahead sugary-ness. Mmmmm.


These statements extended beyond mere statements of choice to express the strength of their cola conviction and their rationale for the choice (in this case taste).

Sometimes the rationale for choice of one brand over the other would be tied into the topic of the newsgroup. For example, one participant in the paintball newsgroup claimed to like Coke better than Pepsi because Pepsi as anti-gun. Other times, the choice of the brand would be tied into lore or history about the brand, such as famous people who had used the brand. Consider the following example from an Elvis Preseley newsgroup.

Re: Jesse !

Date: 1999/02/08

Forum: alt.elvis.king

Personally I like Pepsi better and so did Elvis.

This conversation thread started out as a discussion of singers that sounded like Elvis. One participant claimed that comparing Elvis with one of the other singers (Jimmy "ORION" Ellis), was like comparing Coke and Pepsi. This participant then noted what their preference was and then added that their preference was consistent with what the King preferred. Such a statement was probably intended to legitimatize their choice and underscore their allegiance to the brand.

As the discussion of beverage preferences and anti-preferences progressed, rivalries with the competing brand became more pronounced and involved. Fans of one brand would begin to direct insults toward the other brand and its devotes. These fans would then retaliate in kind. Consider the following exchange.

Re: [PW!][WG] Location: The Diet Coke Bottle From Hell: Evolved form.

Author: Elwen <>

Date: 1999/02/08


|>It is MY doing, and Adrian Tymes! Bow to diet coke!



|I will not!

Yeah. Diet Coke is icky.

Here, the message quotes two previous messages. [The | symbol next to the > indicates that the author is quoting a prior message that in turn quoted still another prior message. The text preceded by |> are from the original message, while the text preceded by | are from the response to that message being quoted.] One telling others to bow to Diet Coke, the next stating that the individual would not and finally, the author’s retort. The first message, suggesting all others bow to Diet Coke was directed toward consumers of competing brands. The two subsequent messages were resistance to this suggestion. It is almost conversational in form and illustrates how participants typically built upon the comments of others.

Most of these exchanges had an almost ritualistic quality about them. The players all seemed to know the routine, and enjoyed participating in the fun. One possible interpretation of this is that the competitive relationship is an important part of the brand experience. These brands were defined, to no small extent, in the advertising and promotion as competing. Participating in such ritual most likely functioned to-reinforce these already well-established meanings (Douglas and Ishwerwood 1977). In addition, such interactions were a chance to engage other contributors of the newsgroup in conversation. Consider the next three messages. All three were taken from the same newsgroup, and the same thread or conversational topic. They are presented in the order in which they were posted. This last point is clear as the third message quotes the second, which quotes the first. Note that the conversation takes place within a discussion of doughnut shops. The first poster notes that the brand of beverage served there was the "best news" about the place.

Krispy Kreme Taste Test - Part 2

Date: 1999/01/31


**** IMHO ****

Krispy Kreme doughnuts are the BEST that I have ever had...

The best news is that they serve Pepsi, not that "Coke" stuff.


Re: Krispy Kreme Taste Test - Part 2

Date: 1999/02/01


>The best news is that they serve Pepsi, not that "Coke" stuff.

That’s good news? (uh-oh I feel a Coke/Pepsi debate coming on).

Anyway, I prefer coffee with my doughnuts. (Preferably a Deidrichs).

:) Mike.


Re: Krispy Kreme Taste Test - Part 2

Date: 1999/02/01


>That’s good news? (uh-oh I feel a Coke/Pepsi debate coming on).


>Anyway, I prefer coffee with my doughnuts. (Preferably a Deidrichs).


>:) Mike.

I, myself, like Pepsi. It’s great for removing the rust off of my barbecue ;)


Here it is evident that while recognizing and participating in these rivalries, most participants understood the playful nature in which they were enacted. Consider the last message above. It can be interpreted in one of two ways, both of which suggest an understanding of the game being played. In the first interpretation, the contributor could be jokingly deprecating the brand in the light-hearted spirit of the preceding messages. Instead of attacking the competing brands, he light-heatedly attacks his own brand of choice. In the second interpretation, the contributor could be a coke drinker masquerading as a Pepsi drinker with a backhanded compliment to Pepsi. Either interpretation suggests a fairly well-developed understanding of the rules of this exchange.

These rivalries and oppositional behaviors also occurred for other soft-drink brands, as well. In many cases, Dr. Pepper drinkers, 7-Up drinkers, as well as consumers of more regional brands would contribute to the thread.

Re: [PW!][WG] Location: The Diet Coke Bottle From Hell: Evolved form.

Date: 1999/02/14


>I refuse to bow to that weak and chemical-tasting rendition of the One True


Ha! Your pitifull shrine to Coke is a minor setback to my leader’s path for

Global Domination! Bow before the Great Dr. Pepper!!

In this case, a Dr. Pepper ensured that one of the smaller players in the beverage skirmish was represented.

In an interesting twist, sometimes, oppositional brand loyalty posts would contain elements of the advertising for the brand. These elements would be creatively employed to bolster the supporter’s argument in favor of their brand. Consider the following.

Re: Pepsi or Coke

Date: 1999/02/21


> I’m in the minority, but my taste buds are kinder to Pepsi than Coke. I’m

> taking votes here. So far it’s Pepsi 1-0....

Well, I’m a Coke person, and I must say that you can’t beat the real thig!

Here a consumer justifies his choice of Coke by quoting part of that beverage’s advertising (Coke frequently positioned itself as being "The Real Thing"). Another participant in this newsgroup responded to this message by noting that he preferred Coke, adding that he would "like to teach the world to post in perfect harmony." In so doing, he was paraphrasing an earlier Coke advertising campaign that sought to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. This use of advertising in consumer conversation is consistent with those described by Alperstein (1989) in which consumers use the content of advertising in daily communication in a playful way.

These rivalry exchanges would end as the subject of the thread drifted or was dropped. Usenet messages in general appear to suffer from a form of message degradation or drift. Essentially, as more messages were posted to a particular subject thread, the topic would begin to vary from the original posting, much like a face-to-face conversation can stray from topic to topic. Oppositional brand loyalty threads, like most threads in Usenet, tended to drift or degrade into discussions of unrelated topics. Discussions of brand preference and rivalry threads eventually changed to discussions of other matters. For example, in the newsgroup, an oppositional brand loyalty thread evolved into a lengthy discussion of great names for rock bands. These topics ended as quickly as they started. However, it should be noted, that topic drift was also responsible for starting several oppositional threads. Thus, in many cases these discussions also ended via the same process by which they started.


This paper presented data on consumer brand loyalty behavior in a social setting, Usenet newsgroups, during a one-month period of 1999. It demonstrates how consumers talk about brands and the consumption experiences that surround in everyday social settings. It also demonstrates that some consumers derive a part of the meaning of the brand and their identity from their opposition to competing brands. Some consumers of soft-drinks define themselves not only by the brands that they did consume, but also by the brands that they did not consume. In some cases, these consumers would extend this behavior and initiate rivalries with the users of competing brands.

This work has implications for our understanding of brand loyalty, and the ways in which brands connect consumers to one another. Oppositional brand loyalty is obviously related to brand loyalty and most likely has impact on brand equity at some level (Keller 1993), perhaps even for those who do not currently consume the brand. This last point is likely as such competitive brand skirmishes take place in settings visible to consumers of all brands. Thus, these interactions would serve to reinforce existing understandings of these brands. At the least, it suggests that associations for any one brand may be embedded in a larger set of brand constellations (Solomon and Assael 1987) as well as anti-constellations (Hogg and Mitchell 1996).

This work also ties in nicely with and contributes to work on brand communities (Fischer and Gainer 1996, Fournier 1998a, McAlexander and Schoute 1998; Muniz and O’Guinn 1995; Schouten and McAlexander 1995). Oppositional brand loyalty could be an example of a less-communal, socially-embedded brand behavior. This would suggest a continuum with the extreme cult-like community of Harley-Davidson riders documented by Schouten and McAlexander (1995) sitting at one end, less intense brand communities such as those described by Muniz and O’Guinn (1995) sitting closer to the middle, and oppositional brand loyalty at the other end.


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