And now for the latest episode of the Cola Wars: Return of the Pepsi.
In the last installment, The Empire Strikes Back, Coca-Cola Co. reacted to Pepsi-Cola's incursions into Coke's market share with a dramatic reformulation of its flagship brand. What Coke hailed as "new and improved," many people regarded as tasting a lot like Pepsi.
Now, Pepsi-Cola is claiming that it's still doing very well, notwithstanding Coke's new taste. Sales of bottled and canned Pepsi were up 14 percent at retail in May, according to Pepsico Inc., despite all the hoopla surrounding the introduction of Coke's new taste in late April.
What's more, Pepsi is beginning an ad campaign today claiming that its research shows that most people don't like Coke's new taste, and that the majority of those who don't like it plan to switch to Pepsi.
Nonsense, says Coke.
Sales of Coke syrup to bottlers rose 8 percent in May, according to Coca-Cola officials. And Coke's own surveys show that most consumers like the new taste.
In war, body counts can differ.
"The Pepsi and Coke data are right off the ends of the spectrum," said Emmanuel Goldman, who charts the Cola Wars for Montgomery Securities, a San Francisco brokerage. "It's a hard one to sort out."
For instance, Pepsi's claim of a 14 percent increase covers all of the company's soft drinks, including the newly introduced Slice, Mountain Dew and Diet Pepsi. The company will not break down how Pepsi itself did last month, but Goldman estimates that its sales increased 4 percent. And the numbers don't reflect fountain sales of the sodas -- an area that Coke dominates.
Meanwhile, Pepsi officials say Coke's claims of an increase in the sales of Coke syrup to bottlers in May are a bit suspect, because Coke was rushing the syrup to bottlers to get the new taste into the marketplace. "Concentrate shipments aren't a reliable measure of how you're doing," said Rebecca Madeira, a Pepsi spokeswoman. "We would expect Coke would fill the pipeline with the new stuff."
Coke won't discuss figures on its sales at the retail level, but analysts believe they grew about as fast as those of Pepsi in May. Goldman estimates that sales of Coke were up about 8 percent, and that sales of all of Coca-Cola's products rose between 14 and 16 percent in May.
As for the consumer surveys, both companies claim that most of the respondents to their recent surveys had strong opinions about the new taste of Coke. Unfortunately, those opinions conflict, depending on which survey you read.
According to Coke, its surveys show that 55 percent of the people in the United States have tried the new Coke, and that 75 percent liked it enough to buy it again.
But Pepsi says its polling shows that most of the people it talked to didn't like the new Coke, and that 46 percent of those who tried it say they plan to either drink less Coke or switch brands -- mostly to Pepsi.
Analysts say differing methodologies and other factors make it difficult to analyze the conflicting surveys. And even officials of Coke and Pepsi say it's really too early to tell just who is going to wind up ahead in this round of the Cola Wars.
"The next three months are going to be a heavy trial period," said a Coke spokesman. "We won't be able to tell anything until late summer about how things are going."
But one thing seems certain: For whatever reason, both brands are selling more than they were a year ago. "May was a spectacular month for the soft-drink business," Goldman said, explaining that all the publicity drummed up by the two companies seems to be beneficial to both.
"Pepsi is certainly doing what it can to tweak Coke, and vice versa, when possible," he said. "What comes out of this is they both have growth rates of 14 percent in May. . . . Pepsi is doing well, and Coke is doing well."