Menus Subscribe Search
coca-cola-branding

Brands Are Imprinted on Our Brains

• June 11, 2013 • 4:00 AM

HANS ENGBERS/SHUTTERSTOCK

Research from Germany finds people like the taste of brand-name colas more than generic ones—even when the soft drinks are identical.

Why do so many of us instinctively reach for brand-name products at the supermarket, even when less-expensive generic ones are available as an option?

If pressed, we’d probably say we like them better—which is odd, given that the generic brands are often identical to the originals. Why would we get more pleasure out of products that come wrapped in a familiar label?

Newly published research from Germany suggests it’s because certain brands are imprinted on our brains.

Participants in a study reported they got more pleasure from tasting colas labeled “Coke” and “Pepsi” compared to generic ones. Brain scans revealed they were indeed reacting differently to the drinks on a neural level. This effect was found despite the fact that all the samples consisted of the same beverage.

Participants in a study reported they got more pleasure from tasting colas labeled “Coke” and “Pepsi” compared to generic ones.

The belief that you are drinking a specific brand impacts “neural responses signalling reward in the brain,” researchers Simone Kuhn and Jurgen Gallinat report in the journal PLOS ONE.

The researchers describe an experiment featuring 15 people ranging in age from 23 to 50. While their brains were scanned using fMRI technology, they were given a series of small drinks of cola. After each swallow, they rated how pleasurable it tasted on a scale of one to eight.

They were told they were sampling Coke, Pepsi, River Cola (a generic brand sold in Germany), and a new drink created in a test laboratory, which was labeled T-Cola. In fact, they always received the same mixture of the first three brands.

Participants rated the “Coke” and “Pepsi” samples as tastier than either the generic or the test brand. “We did not find a significant difference between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola preference,” the researchers write.

Moreover, researchers recorded differences in brain activity when participants were told they were tasting the name brands. Compared to the generic brands, those who thought they were trying Pepsi or Coke had “more activity in the left ventral striatum,” an effect that was particularly pronounced among those who don’t normally drink cola.

“In humans, the ventral striatum has been found to be activated when reward is received, as well as when reward is expected,” the researchers note.

In contrast, the generic brands triggered more activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex. That section of the brain has been associated with assigning value to products, and it sprung into action when participants were asked to evaluate an unknown or little-known cola.

The “strong brand cue” delivered by the news that they were sampling Coke or Pepsi apparently “overrides elaborate processing” in the medial oribtorfrontal cortex. “Since the brand is well-known,” the researchers write, “its associations can be easily retrieved without an additional assessment.”

This suggests the term “Coca-Cola” instantly cues up the idea of pleasure (or, for some people, displeasure), making further assessment unnecessary. Past experiences with the drink—and, perhaps, all those advertisements—creates a shorthand reaction that bypasses the part of the brain that might actively evaluate its quality.

So in a world dominated by corporations and the brand-name items they produce and market, it appears our taste buds can be effortlessly overridden, our enjoyment modulated by our mental associations with a particular product. For better or worse, this is your brain on Coke.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


July 22 • 12:00 PM

On the Destinations of Species

It’s almost always easier to cross international borders if you’re something other than human.


July 22 • 10:51 AM

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.


July 22 • 10:47 AM

Irrational Choice Theory: The LeBron James Migration From Miami to Cleveland

Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense.


July 22 • 9:32 AM

This Time, Scalia Was Right

President Obama’s recess appointments were wrong and, worse, dangerous.


July 22 • 8:00 AM

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?


July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



July 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, MacArthur Genius?

Noah Davis talks to Yoky Matsuoka about youth tennis, wanting to be an airhead, and what it’s like to win a Genius Grant.


July 21 • 11:23 AM

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?


July 21 • 10:00 AM

How Small-D Democratic Should Our Political Parties Be?

We need to decide how primaries should work in this country before they get completely out of hand and the voters are left out entirely.


July 21 • 8:00 AM

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don’t actually walk like primates at all.


July 21 • 6:00 AM

Sequenced in the U.S.A.: A Desperate Town Hands Over Its DNA

The new American economy in three tablespoons of blood, a Walmart gift card, and a former mill town’s DNA.


July 21 • 5:00 AM

Celebrating Independence: Scenes From 59 Days Around the World

While national identities are often used to separate people, a husband-and-wife Facebook photography project aims to build connections.


July 21 • 4:00 AM

Be a Better Person: Take a Walk in the Park

New research from France finds strangers are more helpful if they’ve just strolled through a natural environment.



July 18 • 4:00 PM

The Litany of Problems With the Pentagon’s Effort to Recover MIAs

A draft inspector general report found that the mission lacks basic metrics for how to do the job—and when to end it.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don't actually walk like primates at all.

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.