Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Could Coca-Cola be letting the genie out of the can?

February 2013

Selling your product can be a difficult enough process without drawing attention to its failings in your own marketing. Whether questions of usefulness or quality, or allusions to any unfortunate consequences of using/consuming said product are made explicit or implied, there is a risk inherent in giving customers the opportunity to use your own sales messages to reach unflattering conclusions.

Customers aren’t stupid – okay, some are, but then that’s just the rich tapestry of life playing out before us – and will make judgements about quality or otherwise while considering their decision to buy. I’m sure many lovers of fine jewellery would not have been too enamoured with a gift from Ratner’s in the late Eighties, but even the company’s fans turned their backs on the chain after Gerald Ratner described his product as “total crap” in 1991 – wiping £500m ($788m, €582m) off the value of his company in the process.

How many of us would still covet those trendy jeans if, mixed in with the positive sales patter, the brand also indicated how the phthalates contained therein could affect our intimate parts? Not to mention the potential effect of phthalates in those luminescent rabbits that have revolutionised sex lives around the world ... that one hardly bears thinking about!

So it’s an interesting move for Coca-Cola to refer in its latest US ad campaign to the fact that the original Coke is full of sugar; and that regular visitors to the Coke fountain should get active so as to burn off the ‘140 happy calories’ contained in each can. “All calories count,” we are told in the ad, “no matter where they come from, including Coca-Cola, and everything else with calories. And if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight.”

“The Coca-Cola Company still remains one of the major causes of obesity in the USA and globally,” Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and one of the nation’s top experts on beverage consumption, told Nanci Hellmich at USA Today. “Yes, other foods matter, but the biggest single source contributor to child and adult obesity in the USA is sugar-sweetened beverages.”

We all know Coke is not a health drink, so Coca-Cola must have calculated that the ad would be criticised by some as an empty public relations gesture, while reinforcing its contribution to the obesity epidemic in the US.  

On many fronts, Coca-Cola appears committed to being a responsible company. On the face of it, dipping into the unfamiliar territory of healthy living could embroil it in a transformative dialogue with customers and others, particularly given the threat of taxes on sugary drinks. But perhaps it also shows that a large corporation can see the shortcomings of traditional marketing, and that a little more honesty might, over time, add value to the brand.

Coca-Cola | Global | Advertising

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