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Why Tackling Obesity NOW Is A Smart Strategy For Coke

Consumers want what they want. How often have we heard this used as a defense for selling just about anything, whether it is good for people or not? The fact is, people like unhealthy products – and they get angry when anyone tries to deny them the chance to buy them. This is particularly true in America, where New York Mayor Bloomberg’s call for a ban on sales of super-sized portions of soda last year was met with all sorts of criticism and negativity before being ultimately approved. This “make the consumer happy at all costs” mentality has been around for hundreds of years. After all, if you have a product that people like, why should you stop selling it?

This evening Coca-Cola is set to air a series of two minute ads that will address the issue of obesity that it has become a central player in. Coke is a favourite target for critics who blame the obesity epidemic in America and many other countries around the world on over consumption of sugary sodas. For anyone following the beverage industry, this sort of communications effort is probably not a surprise to see. For an industry plagued with criticism, eventually someone needs to respond and Coke is a natural choice. I have met and worked with several people at Coke in the past and the company is one that is genuinely committed to changing the world in many positive ways.

But the question from a marketing point of view that should be more interesting is why is Coke doing this right now? A masterful marketing organization like Coke doesn’t launch this type of initiative without carefully considering the strategy behind it. Here are a few reasons that today and this week are the ideal moments in time for Coke to take a stand on the issue of obesity:

  1. Public pressure has reached a tipping point. The proposed NY ban (and other Mayors who promise to follow the example) as well as more debate in the media on the effects of consumption has finally gotten to a point of frequency where ignoring the debate is no longer a good option. It’s time to break the silence and take a more proactive stance on the issue.
  2. Negative reputation of high fructose corn syrup. In the past few years, the dangers of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) have finally reached the general public. More products every day come with a “no high fructose corn syrup” label, and it even drove the corn refiners industry to launch a sneaky initiative to rebrand HFCS as “corn sugar” – which the FDA rejected last year.
  3. Commitments to health matter more at the start of the year. Just about everyone is making some type of resolution in the new year to live a more healthy lifestyle, and for many people that means drinking less soda. This sort of commitment early in the year taps perfectly into the conversations that consumers are already having – which gives Coke a reason to engage their customers on a topic they care about.
  4. Focusing on health can make competitors look unfeeling or out of touch. As Pepsi gets set to spend millions sponsoring the Super Bowl and promoting their halftime photo contest, Coke gets the benefit of taking a higher road with their new focus on health and desire to have a conversation about obesity – which makes Pepsi look like an ordinary stunt-driven marketer in comparison.

Watch the video below:

10 thoughts on “Why Tackling Obesity NOW Is A Smart Strategy For Coke”

  1. “Public pressure” also seems to take the form of consumer expectations, specifically in the form of assumptions that brand actions will have some socially positive value. Note the results of the recent Havas “Meaningful Brands Study,” as an example. Now, how Coke plans to execute this strategy without looking like the pot calling the kettle black remains to be seen. Perhaps it will revolve around an entire portfolio strategy, one that highlights all of their offerings, not just the flagship soft drink with 40+ grams of sugar in it. But I have to congratulate them: They’re smart. As has been seen, Pepsi’s recent deal with Beyonce has only put the spotlight back on soda makers and their contribution to US obesity. Bittman first in the NYT, and now his editorial has been picked up by Ad Age. And it’ll all be back in peoples’ faces next month at the Super Bowl. Yeah, Coke needed to get in front of this.

  2. Sad reality is that Coca-Cola has over 200 OTHER products in their portfolio and many of them from their waters to fruit drinks (Minute Maid) are actually decent/healthy options. Unfortunately pouring rights (movie theatres etc), vending options and consumer “votes” (by actually buying the product) means that Coke Trademark still gets a disproportionate amount of distribution and consumption.

    Coke marketers are amongst the smartest I’ve worked with. They recognize the responsibility that comes from being the world’s most recognizable trademark. As brand and category leaders, they’ve an obligation to lean into these issues.

    BUT, they’re also commercially-minded and, whether we like it or not, sales of these products have made them a decent stock to hold and also allowed them to fund acquisitions of (and research into) healthier options.

    I agree whole-heartedly that this is a smart – and timely – strategy. Socially-conscious consumers demand socially-accountable brands. Add socially-connected and you’ve a perfect storm for brands that aren’t taking responsibility. I’m heartened to see Coke lean into this issue. That’s just what leaders do.

  3. HI Rohit,

    I think you make some great points about now being the tipping point for a brand to address the obesity issue. I would agree that they’re all true, actually. We are more hyper-vigilant about health and overconsumption now than ever, no doubt. Nobody’s fooled by HFCS and the gym is still packed with “Resolutioners.”

    However, my concern is that it just doesn’t fit Coke’s brand story. The first 90-seconds of the video are fantastic. I didn’t know how many low- or no-calorie products they offered and I learned that they’ve taken great steps to reduce overconsumption with portion control and make calorie counts obvious. But their statement about “all calories count” sounds incredibly disingenuous Yes, they all count, but they’re not created equal, and calories from soda are some of the most useless calories there are. They never own up to this, however, and end the spot with a vague statement about coming together.

    My focus as a marketer is in brand storytelling, and tackling obesity just isn’t part of their story. Offering healthier alternatives and reducing portion control is, but Coke is not part of a healthy diet, and has no real health benefits at all. This type of spot, if it were about fast food, might make sense for Subway because healthy options are part of their DNA and brand story. But Coke (and Pepsi for that matter) was built on their sugar water. This simply opens the door for intense backlash. I can’t agree it was a great strategy.

    I wrote a post about it, actually. Would love your thoughts (here or there).


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In addition to Non-Obvious Thinking, Rohit is the author of 10 books on trends, the future of business, building a more human brand with storytelling and how to create a more diverse and inclusive world.

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