Coke's New Chairman Needs Some New Thinking. Real!

by , Jun 25, 2004, 12:00 AM
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The typical 12-ounce soft drink contains 150 calories and 10 teaspoons (40 grams) of refined sugars. Americans gulp down more soda pop than anyone else. Consumption has doubled over the past 30 years, with companies now producing an average of almost 600 cans per year for every man, woman, and child.

When you spend 35 years at a company (and are dusted off the retirement shelf to become chairman and chief executive as E. Neville Isdell has at Coke), it is understandable that you have not only swallowed the Kool-Aid, but digested it and begun to see visions of Jim Jones smiling at the pearly gates. And so it was understandable that E. Neville, in his first major public appearance, pooh-poohed the notion that soft drinks contribute to the widely acknowledged (well, everywhere but Atlanta) global obesity epidemic.

As has become junk food industry standard practice, E. Neville shifted the blame back onto his sedentary customer base, noting that 40% of Americans engage in "absolutely no physical activity at all." Blah, blah, blah.

You have to give E. Neville credit for keeping an eye on the Big Picture, implying that the last thing he wants is for consumers to drop dead from clogged arteries and overtaxed hearts. "Healthier consumers are going to be good for us," he said. "They will grow older, healthier, wealthier--and hopefully, therefore able to buy more from us. Which, at the end of the day-- let's face it--is our goal."

The problem with E. Neville is that he conveniently forgets to make a distinction between manufacturing junk food ("We have to respond to what consumers want," he says) and marketing it.

Look no farther than the tobacco companies to see that America has long embraced the God-given right to make money at the expense of consumer health and well-being. So we can't fault E. Neville for producing a vast product line of sugary water with absolutely no nutritional value, but in most cases, loads of calories. We can, however, look at nearly 90 years of marketing aimed not at consumer awareness, but youthful consumption.

I am certain that E. Neville would defend Coke's marketing as aimed only at stealing market share from Pepsi (or milk, or water), but only a child would believe that a soft drink "Revives and Sustains" (1905); is "Iced Cold Sunshine" (1932); "What you Want Is a Coke" (1952); "Makes Good Things Taste Better"(1956); or "Things Go Better with Coke" (1963), or the contemporary urban slangy "Coca Cola.Real."

Not convinced? How about associating your product with every child's fantasy image of gratification? Coke's own Web site, with folksy pride, lays claim to the current image of Santa Claus, as Coke refined his likeness in various print ads featuring Santa with Coke that ran from the 1920s to the 1960s.

The company also proudly points out that in the Spielberg film, to explain life on earth to E.T., Elliott opens a refrigerator to reveal a Coke. There is even a part of the site set aside for people to recall their childhood memories of Coke. One 70-year-old likens his first taste of Coca-Cola at nine years of age to "the first kiss, the first embrace."

In the summer of 2003, Coke reportedly changed its advertising policy to halt commercials before, during, or after child-oriented television shows, and said it would stop running advertisements in publications aimed at the under-12 market. The company has also stopped depicting children under the age of 12 in its ads and marketing materials. Instead, Coke now markets to parents and families, a company spokeswoman said.

But what about Coke's presence in movie promotions that urge patrons to hit the snack stand for candy, popcorn, and you know what? Or the symbiotic association with McDonald's? Or the company's effort to have its vending machines placed in schools and other venues where kids congregate, from shopping malls to skating rinks to baseball fields? Or Coke's sponsorship of the National PTA?

A professor of medicine and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical Center said: "Consumption of soft drinks has soared over the past two decades, contributing to the doubling in the percentage of obese teenagers. That obesity epidemic is fueling a diabetes epidemic." A study published in The Lancet in Britain concluded that "both body-mass index and frequency of obesity increased for each additional daily serving of sugar- sweetened drink consumed."

E. Neville said that the food industry hasn't been given enough credit for steps it has already taken to provide consumers with healthier options. Is he referring to the fact that Coca-Cola also markets non-carbonated drinks that pretend to be rich in fruit juice (and nutrients), but are basically sugar water? Coke's Fruitopia and Hi-C, for example, contain only 5% to 10% fruit juice, but contain about as much (or more) sugar as carbonated soda pop.

Come on, E. Neville--if you are going to lead Coca-Cola in the 21st century, you need to shake off that 19th-century heritage and grow up with the times..Real!

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