Sodas on the Defensive

11 Apr 2013|Leslie Pascaud

Coke, Pepsi… iconic American brands that have travelled the world round and become a staple at every social event. For decades, their bubbly sweetness has symbolized youth, friendship, freedom and happiness. But their sugary alter ego is gaining notoriety. And the voices of dissention are getting louder. So could soft drinks be heading for the same pariah status as tobacco? Leslie Pascaud, our Global Thought Leader on sustainable brands shares her point of view…

The murmurs of discontent began early in the millennium with a panel study of 50,000 nurses. Results of the study showed that the nurses who significantly increased their consumption of sugary (ie, non-diet) soft drinks tended to get diabetes at a significantly higher rate. Then came “Supersize Me”, the hyper-critical film that excoriated unhealthy fast foods and beverages, bringing excessive soft drink consumption to the world’s attention. Ten years later, Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s 3-term Mayor launched another powerful attack, pursuing a multi-year public health campaign against sugar and fat, with a proposed ban on selling sugary beverages above 16 ounces in restaurants, delis, stadiums and food carts. The ban was struck down (with the help of the American Beverages Association) by a state judge last month, just hours before it was to take effect.

So happy days for the soda industry, right? Apparently not. A slate of recent media attacks, supported by data and “confessions” from former company executives, is making it impossible for the major players to ignore the evidence that these drinks are a prime culprit in the obesity epidemic that has struck children. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, sugary drinks are the single biggest source of calories in the American diet. A recent study of more than 10,000 children, conducted by the University of North Carolina concurred that sugar-sweetened beverages are one of the primary sources of higher caloric intake in children. According to Kelly Brownell, a professor of psychology and epidemiology at the department of health at Yale University, “liquid calories don’t register with the brain in the same way calories from foods do, so people who drink copious amounts of sweet liquids take in a greater number of calories without feeling full.”

Soda brands are facing challenges not just from the media, but from healthier beverages and non-traditional carbonated soft drinks. The bottled water business has grown substantially: Americans now drink an average of about 58 gallons of water per year, an increase of 38 % from 1998 while soft drink consumption has dropped 17% over the same period.

bouteilles de soda


In parallel, brands like Sodastream are promoting freshness, convenience and eco benefits. The SodaStream ad, run during the Super Bowl, shows crates of carbonated beverages exploding each time the user of soda stream pushes the button on his machine. An alternative version of the ad, rejected by CBS, delivered an even more explicit attack on Coke and Pepsi, and received over 5 million hits on You Tube.

So are soft drinks headed for the same pariah status as tobacco? In the short term, this is less than likely:

• The health movement is far from universal. In the US, drinking supersized soda, like carrying a firearm, is considered to be an inviolable first amendment right. In Mississippi, a state where one in three adults is obese, an “Anti-Bloomberg Bill” received bipartisan support and is awaiting the governor’s signature. Consumer concern over soft drinks has actually declined slightly in the UK where, according to Giles Quick of Kantar World Panel, fried food tops the bad health list while carbonated beverages are considered unhealthy by only half as many people.

• Neither Coke nor Pepsi is standing on the sustainability sidelines either. Both have been heavily engaged in initiatives to reduce waste and preserve water. According to their sustainability report, 85% of Coke packaging is recyclable and the company is seeking to recycle up to 50% of bottles and cans used annually in the US by 2015. Pepsi’s Dream Machine initiative has put some 4000 reverse vending machines at the disposal of consumers, allowing them to earn points for recycling.

• Both Coke and Pepsi are also tackling the health issue more proactively. Pepsi is a leading member of The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a CEO-led organization, conducting a multi-year effort designed to help reduce childhood obesity by 2015. Last June, Coke announced a $8.4 Million donation to place 100 Fitness Centers across the U.S. and fund fitness and nutrition programs around the World.


But can a brand offset a “social bad” with a social good? Humans are experts at compensating for bad behaviors with good ones. We give extra money in church after behaving poorly at home. We go on a crash Monday diet after a weekend of excess. Why can’t the brands which are supposed to reflect our values and mimic our personalities do the same?

In my view, we don’t and shouldn’t allow the same hypocrisy in brands that we permit of ourselves. Brands are intended to stand for something. They are designed to reflect the best of our aspirational selves. Coke, Pepsi and other soft drink manufacturers must do more. Coke’s recent efforts to reduce portion sizes in the US, to replace sugar drinks with less caloric ones in school machines and to create a front-of-the-package labeling systems that encourage healthier food choices are all big steps in the right direction. Their new ad campaign reminds viewers that all calories count in bodyweight control, including those in Coca-Cola drinks.

Coke and Pepsi’s recent pledge in the UK to reduce the calories in some of its soft drinks by at least 30% by 2014 is another positive move. Both companies’ strategic shift away from sweet carbonated beverages and towards healthier options (Sobe, Naked, Tropicana for Pepsi, Odwalla, Vitamin Water, Fuze, Minute Maid for Coke), is even more significant.

But these brands should also look at their soft drink strategies: limit promotion of the least healthy drinks, especially amongst vulnerable populations and cease the influencing of lobbyists to fight mandatory federal guidelines for marketing of soft drinks to children.

Ultimately, the goal must be to create and market products that deliver all the pleasure with more natural ingredients, fewer calories and fewer impacts on the environment. Only when they have achieved this, will their happiness be truly contagious.

Written by Leslie Pascaud, Exec VP of Branding and Sustainable Innovation, Added Value New York.

Photo credits:

Thumbnail photo from the Sodastream Superbowl ad.

Center photo taken from

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