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Shame Is a Losing Strategy For Both Coke And Its Attackers

Hank Cardello

Last week the Coca-Cola Company unveiled a new website that discloses the scientists, nutritionists, and others to whom it has given money. It came in the wake of a New York Times story last month that claimed that the world’s biggest soft-drink company had founded and funded a group of scientists, the Global Energy Balance Network, that urged Americans to exercise rather than watch what they eat and drink.

Anti-Big Food activists are no doubt scanning the list of Coke’s handouts with outrage and satisfaction. But in the fight against obesity these new disclosures, while laudable, won’t matter much. Both Coke and its detractors must dramatically change their attitudes and how they engage with each other for real progress to continue in reducing obesity.

From years of both advising companies and conducting research for public health organizations through the Hudson Institute, I’ve gained a perspective on which strategies move the needle the most in reducing the obesity crisis. (Disclosure: I have consulted for Coca-Cola, but not since 2009, and the Hudson Institute has accepted unrestricted funds from the company, but also from groups with contrasting views, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.) Coke’s disclosures and the new round of public shaming that will likely follow won’t make much of a difference in slimming down people’s waistlines. That’s because neither Coke nor the public health activists have dealt with their biggest problems: Coke is still protecting its flagship product, at the expense of stockholders, not just obese customers, and detractors continue to urge tax-and-ban strategies that won’t work, and they disregard companies’ need to earn money.

Coke’s Achilles’ heel is treating Classic Coke, as dear to the tradition-bound company as Mickey Mouse is to Disney, as a castle to be defended at all costs against attackers. Coca-Cola bleeds red, the color of its iconic trademark; protecting “The Real Thing” is an ingrained, visceral response. However, the time has come to acknowledge that its lower-calorie and better-for-you progeny deserve more of the spotlight and may eventually supplant the parent.

One has only to look at Budweiser, the original “King of Beers,” which now plays No. 3 behind Coors Light and Bud’s own better-for-you offspring, Bud Light. This means that while Coke has commendably spent more than $118 million on various obesity studies and initiatives according to its new web site, the extra $1 billion earmarked for marketing its traditional beverages through 2016 needs to be shifted to healthier products.

To be sure, Coke’s portfolio now includes smaller bottles and cans of traditional Coke, which are selling well. The company also sells bottled waters (a category whose sales are projected to overtake sodas by 2017), enhanced waters, sports drinks, and lower-calorie soft drinks. Studies have shown that these lower-calorie items are spurring greater sales growth than the traditional higher-calorie drinks, making them better for the companies that sell them as well as for consumers. Coke should be shifting more marketing dollars and resources to promote these beverages, with the same marketing genius that has shaped consumer desires for its products over the last 100 years. If any organization has the marketing prowess to fuel demand for healthier new products it is Coca-Cola.

While it shifts its focus to drinks with fewer calories, Coke should also publicly own up to the fact that too much sugary soda is bad for you. In a seminar that I moderated for the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation in May, Global Energy Balance Network head Dr. James Hill actually declared that both exercise and watching calories were necessary, and that consumers should manage their sugar-sweetened beverage intake. Even the top Coke people get this. Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America, has told Bloomberg News that he drinks only one small can of regular Coke each day.

In this vein, the company is presented with a once-in-a-decade leadership opportunity to aggressively stress moderation and responsible consumption, in much the same way as Anheuser-Busch responded to attacks by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The beer giant began its “Know when to say when” campaign in 1982. By 1990, one out of every two beers in America was made by Anheuser-Busch. Not too bad for business. By admitting the downside of drinking too much Coke, the company would take transparency to another level. It would only fortify Coke’s corporate citizenry, especially among those prime beverage consumers millennials, who value healthier foods and honest purveyors.

While Coke has had its problems, food activists should not be gloating. Demonizing Coke and other food and beverage companies will only prolong the battle to reduce obesity. These companies, which make not only indulgent treats but also products that people need to survive, don’t deserve to be part of the same rogue’s gallery as tobacco companies. Yet many activists cling to the notion that these companies are inherently evil, that their products are either “good” or “bad,” and that “bad” foods must therefore be outlawed or taxed to protect consumers. A recent example: The Center for Science in the Public Interest is now calling for a ban on candy displays near checkout aisles, despite the fact that the average American consumes only 2% of his or her calories from candy. Taken to extremes, some activists would tax or ban anything that is irresistible but has little redeeming nutritional value. Could baguettes and ice cream be next?

Consumers are not helpless victims who need to be protected from bad decisions. According to research from the Natural Marketing Institute, the overwhelming majority of consumers want taste, convenience, and value, and they choose their foods and beverages accordingly. And a growing cohort of consumers wants both healthier products and the right to indulge on occasion. Changing behavior involves understanding these needs and marketing healthier options effectively, not taxing or banning their splurges. Instead, the activists should demonstrate to Coke how making its better-for-you beverages more available and promoting them more vigorously would benefit its shareholders as well as public health.

Activists should also understand that continuing to pounce and punish without offering practical solutions perpetuates the problem. Draconian measures that tax, limit, or ban certain foods are anathema to food companies’ mandate to grow. Such measures only guarantee that these companies will marshal all their firepower to fight back. So will makers of candy, ice cream, and other high-calorie products that fear they will be the next targets.

Instead, activists would be more effective if they broadened their tool kit to incorporate other measures, such as anticipating the unintended consequences of their actions and better understanding what each consumer segment is demanding vis-à-vis healthier products.

And just as Coke should admit that daily 64-ounce Double Gulps are bad for you, activists should also defer to science in the debate over aspartame, an unfairly maligned ingredient of many lower-calorie beverages. Despite assurances from the Food and Drug Administration, the European Food Safety Authority, and other respected organizations that aspartame is safe, uninformed but influential bloggers managed to confuse and scare consumers, and public health activists who know better haven’t spoken up for fear of damaging their street cred. The entire category of artificially sweetened beverages, whose growth has helped reduce the calories that beverage companies sell, has taken an unnecessary hit in sales, and recently PepsiCo was forced to remove aspartame from Diet Pepsi. If activists demand honesty and transparency, they should start with themselves.

The good news is that the needle is starting to budge on the obesity crisis, though not because of taxes or bans. Obesity among small children has plummeted 43% in the past decade, and adult obesity rates have begun to stabilize. What has helped: collaborative partnerships between Big Food and health advocates, such as those involving the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Partnership for a Healthier America. Such partnerships work because they respect both consumers’ health and companies’ right to earn money.

Coke and other beverage companies, along with other major food companies, have collectively cut 6.4 trillion calories (or 78 calories per day per person) through the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation and have promised to further reduce beverage calories another 20% per capita by 2025. Soda consumption has been declining sharply since its peak in the late 1990s and is on the way down to levels not seen since 1977. This represents serious progress in the war to reduce obesity rates.

Continued progress depends on continued cooperation between beverage companies and public health advocates. Coke’s detractors can’t afford to poison this well, and Coke and other companies can’t afford to tune out the public health advocates, who provide a window on consumer trends.

This food fight needs to end. It’s time for both sides to graduate to the adult table, where practical voices and constructive, common-sense solutions will carry the day. Only then can we make things better, for both public health and business.

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