Without a Coca-Cola life is unthinkable. So wrote Henry Miller in his 1945 book, An Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Miller took a critical view of American culture, values, and consumption. And his tone toward Coke—one of America’s oldest and arguably most beloved brands—smacked of reproach rather than affection.
Interest groups and anti-obesity activists voiced similar distaste for the Coke brand and its parent company earlier this week when Coke launched its new "Together for Good" campaign. The first ad, aired Monday night on cable news networks, recognized the role that sugary drinks—including hundreds of Coke products—play in the growing obesity epidemic. At the same time, the commercial listed Coke’s many efforts to mitigate obesity. And the company deflected responsibility, pointing out that all calories matter and calling on everyone—business, government, teachers, scientists and parents—to be part of the solution. A follow-up ad, themed "Be Ok," which lists ways you can burn the calories in a Coke, was slated to reach millions of American homes as viewers tuned in to American Idol. It will air again before the Super Bowl next month.
Groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI) rebuked the ads, reducing them to mere "damage control" in response to the onslaught of legislation banning or limiting sale of soda. Meanwhile, others favored the ads, calling them "brilliant" even if only for their public relations value. In reality, both public policy and corporate strategy led to Coke’s public engagement in the obesity dialogue, but neither is fully responsible for the shift. Changing consumer preferences are the primary driver not just for Coke’s ads, but also for the laundry list of changes that Coke has made in recent years, as described in the campaign.
And regardless of the pundits’ opinions, Coke’s move represents a milestone in the tenuous relationship between brands and the consumers who hate to love them. With it come three opportunities for consumers to influence the path of companies like Coke. Take note, and take action:
The tail no longer wags the dog. Remember when Coke stood for saving polar bears? While the company still makes significant investments in environmental conservation and in other worthy causes, Coke’s direct and public engagement in the obesity epidemic represents a fundamental shift in its approach to social responsibility. If Coke is a bellwether for consumer mega-brands, then gone are the days when such companies can use feel-good philanthropy to distract consumers from the real social issues affected by their business. Consumers—with the help of stakeholders and activists—drove this change by demanding transparency, holding charity aside, and making product choices based on, well, the products. Consumers should celebrate this change, and push other companies to do the same.
All calories count, says Coke’s commercial. And everyone has to think about both calories consumed and calories burned. These statements are true, and personal responsibility is a reality that consumers must embrace to combat obesity and other issues. But science tells us that not all calories are created equal. Likewise, social science has shown that some consumers—particularly children and people living in food deserts—cannot rescue themselves from lack of knowledge, poor nutrition, and simple overconsumption.
For the informed and capable consumer, now is the time to keep pushing. We must continue asking companies to fully own their role in creating solutions to social issues and minimizing the negative social impact of their products and business. For Coke, this means further innovation in terms of products, portions, promotions, and packages.
As consumers, our most powerful tool is our wallet. Companies slowly respond to activism and bend when forced to legislation, but they react quickly and aggressively to sales. The best way for us to continue to shape the future of Coke and the food and beverage industry as a whole is through our purchases, day in and day out. If we want healthier products in the beverage aisle, the best thing to do is buy those that already exist.
Consumers will decide in the coming months if Coke deserves accolades or scorn, and they’ll voice their decision in bottles and cans rather than in blogs and statements. I believe Coke’s move is forward progress. And for me, life without Coke Zero is, indeed, unthinkable.