Pavlovian Conditioning: Understanding Coca-Cola’s Brand Strategy

In 1897, the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov was studying the digestive system of dogs when he observed that a stimulus unrelated to food made the dogs salivate. In one experiment he rang a bell just before giving food to the dog. He repeated this several times until the dog salivated at the sound of the bell alone.

No sight or smell of food was present. The sound of the bell produced the same response as the food. The dog learned to associate the bell with food. This is an example of Classical Conditioning, also known as Pavlovian or Respondent Conditioning.

According to Classical Conditioning, a neutral event, such as ringing a bell (Neutral Stimulus) could be associated with another event that followed i.e. getting fed (Unconditioned Stimulus). This association could be created through repeating the neutral stimulus along with the unconditioned stimulus, which would become a Conditioned Stimulus, leading to a Conditioned Response i.e. salivation.

Numerous studies have followed Pavlov’s experiments. They have demonstrated classical conditioning using a variety of methods. This also shows the replicability of Pavlov’s research. Thereby recognising it as an important unconscious influence of human behaviour.

According to Classical Conditioning Theory, everything from speech to emotional responses are simply patterns of stimulus and response. For example, when you first see someone holding a balloon and a pin close to it, you anticipate it to burst. After this happens many times, you associate holding the pin to the balloon with the ‘bang’ that follows.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, classical conditioning was leading you to associate a neutral stimulus (the pin approaching a balloon) with bursting of the balloon. This leads to a conditioned response (flinching, wincing or plugging your ears) to this now conditioned stimulus.

If you have been following this blog for sometime, it is very likely that you know who Charlie Munger is. He is the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett’s best buddy. Charlie Munger is known for his multidisciplinary thinking. He is often considered to have the smartest brain. And he is 95 years old.

Munger has mentioned Pavlovian conditioning many times over the years in his speeches. If somebody like Charlie Munger tends to take it seriously, I guess we all should.

“In Pavlovian conditioning powerful effects come from mere association. The neural system of Pavlov’s dog causes it to salivate at the bell it can’t eat. And the brain of man yearns for the type of beverage held by the pretty woman he can’t have.”

— Charlie Munger

Getting back to the subject at hand, it’s probably clear why this concept is so powerful. It practically means that it’s possible to trigger an innate biological response with a stimulus of your choice, like, for example, a brand logo. All most all brands try to implement this. For example, a brand would show friends and families in an ad to associate itself with ‘togetherness’.

Coca-Cola’s brand strategy was explained by Charlie Munger in his speech Practical Thought About Practical Thought? You should read it in its entirety. It’s most likely the best case study you’ll ever read. Here, Munger says a couple of things worth noting.

“…we must use every sort of decent, honourable Pavlovian conditioning we can think of. For as long as we are in business, our beverage and its promotion must be associated in consumer minds with all other things consumers like or admire. Considering Pavlovian effects, we will have wisely chosen the exotic and expensive-sounding name “Coca-Cola,” instead of a pedestrian name like “Glotz’s sugared, caffeinated water. For similar Pavlovian reasons, it will be wise to have our beverage look pretty much like wine, instead of sugared water. And so we will artificially colour our beverage if it comes out clear. And we will carbonate our water, making our product seem like champagne, or some other expensive beverage…”

— Charlie Munger

Back In 2003, back when I was a kid, Coca-Cola launched one of the most successful campaigns in India till date. It was called, Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola. Thanda is a Hindi word which means a cool drink, and this word is ingrained in Indian culture. When guests arrive, we ask, Kuch thanda lenge yaa garam? Would you prefer having something cool or hot?

Hawkers sell cold drinks, soda, or chilled water by crying out “Thanda! Thanda!” The ad campaign used a clever twist of this familiar word to link it to Coca-Cola. Resulting in an association of coolness with Coca-Cola in the Indian minds. This very campaign expanded the target group from the youth to the masses. This also was the first attempt to represent Coca-Cola as The Cool Drink for Everyone, not just for the urban. Pavlovian conditioning all the way!

However, Munger also notes that we should use both the techniques, that is both Classical and Operant Conditioning, if we want a lollapalooza (or extraordinary) result.

Munger says:

“And how does one create and maintain conditioned reflexes? Well, the psychology text gives two answers: by Operant Conditioning, and by Classical Conditioning, often called Pavlovian Conditioning to honour the great Russian scientist. And, since we want a lollapalooza result, we must use both conditioning techniques.”
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