Soda Companies Say Cutting Calories, But A Marketing Ploy?

Soda companiesThe announcement from the three largest soda corporations — Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group — said they are committed to reducing the number of calories Americans consume from their sugary drinks. Their pledge was to cut consumption by one-fifth within the next decade. While the soda companies’ promise about cutting calories sounds bold and altruistic, one cannot help be think it is a marketing ploy.

The commitment was made Tuesday by the big three soda manufacturers at the 10th annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York. The companies were acknowledging that their products could be partly responsible for the country’s increasing waistlines and resultant escalating rates of diabetes and heart disease.

Former President Bill Clinton commented enthusiastically that the 20 percent calorie drop “could mean a couple of pounds of weight lost each year in some cases.” At present, sugary soft drinks reportedly make up 6 percent of the average American consumer’s calories each day. In lower-income communities, regular colas or other sugary drinks are sometimes half of a child’s calories in a given day.

In reality, the soda companies are not promising any changes to the content of their products. They are just changing their marketing approaches to address changes in people’s tastes and head off possible legislative mandates.

Even the promise to cut calories consumed may not mean any changes. Customers are already moving away from soft drinks. Sales of sugary sodas have declined considerably as consumers have become more conscious of their dietary habits and overall health. From 2000 to 2013, soda consumption fell 12 percent, according to Beverage Digest.

In response, Coke, Pepsi and others pushed out smaller cans and bottles. These are positioned as smaller portions, but the reality is the smaller sizes are more profitable. In addition, the companies have expanded their bottled water offerings, particularly flavored versions. The companies have also diversified, such as Coke’s new minority stake in Monster energy drinks.

So what are the companies really promising to do? They have said they will expand their low- and no-calorie drinks besides introducing more drinks in smaller portions. The marketing efforts to push lower-calorie choices will include company-owned vending machines, convenience store coolers, and fountain soda dispensers in fast-food chains and movie theaters. When places have machines or coolers that say Coke or Pepsi on them, odds are the soda companies control those dispenser machines and most coolers. They also control about one-third of drink vending machines. Their push will spill into grocery store end-of-aisle displays and other marketing, too.

There will also be targeted community initiatives in some parts of the country promoting water and other low calorie options. Many of those, however, were driven by the onslaught of regulatory initiatives at every level of government, much like the contentious effort New York Mayor Michael R Bloomberg tried to introduce limiting soda sizes and stalled legislation in California that would require new labeling on containers.

The big soda companies can be lauded for embracing the idea of cutting calories, but given all the evidence it seems like a marketing ploy. After all, it is not like any of the measures they are taking are designed to curb marketing of their products, just ensure it continues on a lower calorie plain.

By Dyanne Weiss

Washington Post
American Beverage Association
New York Times