Can Soda Companies Engage in Social Marketing?

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group pledged yesterday to cut beverage calories in the American diet by 20% by 2025 through promoting bottled water, low-calorie drinks and smaller portions.

Soda choices

From The Wall Street Journal, “Under the voluntary agreement…the companies said they would market and distribute their drinks in a way that should help steer consumers to smaller portions and zero- or low-calorie drinks. They also have committed to providing calorie counts on more than 3 million vending machines, self-serve fountain dispensers and retail coolers in stores, restaurants and other points of sale.” E.J Schultz at AdAge added: “Marketing could play a key role in the effort, with the beverage companies saying in a statement that they will ‘engage in consumer education and outreach efforts to increase consumer awareness of and interest in the wide array of no- and lower-calorie beverages and smaller portion sizes available.'”

AdAge reports that the companies would also put special emphasis on communities where there is less access to lower-calorie beverages. They may, for example, feature only reduced-calorie beverages at highly trafficked store areas such as checkout displays. Communities in Los Angeles and Little Rock, Ark., are expected to be the first places where these targeted efforts will occur.

The press release from the American Beverage Association also notes: “Each beverage company may undertake additional activities including: introducing and expanding new lower-calorie products and smaller-portion packages; product placement such as end aisle and checkout displays featuring only reduced-calorie beverages; merchandising efforts such as repositioning reduced-calorie beverages on shelves; providing coupons and other incentives promoting no/lower-calorie options; and taste tests/sampling programs in and out of store.” [Ed Note: I’ll underscore the mays’ that are embedded in many of these promises.]

This news can be either welcomed or criticized. Who better than the marketers of these products to put their energies into ‘doing the right thing’ and making a contribution to reducing the obesogenic environment in the US? For example, in an analysis of the association of soft drink consumption, overweight, obesity and the prevalence of diabetes in 75 countries, it was found that a 1% rise in soft drink consumption was associated with an additional 4.8 overweight adults per 100, 2.3 obese adults per 100 and 0.3 adults with diabetes per 100. These findings were consistent across low- and middle-income countries as well.

Another perspective could be more cynical: are these companies trying to put a PR spin on what is already a losing cause for many of their products? Mike Esterl in the WSJ article highlights that soda’s share of U.S. beverage consumption peaked at 29.6% in 1998 and stood at 23.1% last year.  “Consumption trends are moving in this direction already, so they might be promising something that will happen no matter what they do,” said Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, in USAToday.

Related to this point of corporate self-interest, not social responsibility, is the question of whether focusing consumers on choosing smaller containers will actually boost their bottom-line. There is some research to suggest this could be the case. In a behavioral simulation with undergraduate students using three different settings (fast food restaurant, movie theater and stadium), participants were offered in each simulated setting (1) 16 oz, 24 oz, or 32 oz drinks for sale, (2) 16 oz drinks, a bundle of two 12 oz drinks, or a bundle of two 16 oz drinks, and (3) only 16 oz drinks. The researchers found that participants bought significantly more ounces of soda with bundles than with varying-sized drinks. Total business revenue was also higher when bundles rather than only small-sized drinks were sold. They concluded that businesses have a strong incentive to offer bundles of soda when drink size is limited (remember those smaller portion sizes that are promised?).

The companies won’t be penalized if they can’t keep their promise, but the pledge’s results will be tracked by an independent third party. Let’s see just what outcomes this evaluation measures – and which ones are overlooked.

A couple of more points about this initiative. First, it’s better than the status quo – but by how much? I see little attention given to demarketing sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs). Rather, the corporate strategy is repositioning the ‘competition’ (options that each company also owns), engaging in point-of-choice education (calorie labeling on vending machines) that doesn’t have evidence for its impact on choices or consumption of SSBs [and is something the FDA is already proposing requirements to do anyway], and even more communication and promotion.

Can these companies’ marketers actually change people’s behavior and help them make healthier choices – or will they stay in the corporate box of increasing the bottom-line? And at the end of the day, are they really accountable for anything but acknowledging that SSBs are a losing product category among more-and-more consumers?

And what would a social marketer be doing instead? Here are a few ideas:

Does marketing make us fat?
Obesity prevention: Getting it [food marketers lay out what is really necessary to make a dent in the obesity problem]

What are some of yours?

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