The Skinny on Coca Cola’s Downsize

Is size important? Three experts assess whether beverage giant Coca Cola’s new anti-obesity campaign is more than just fizz, Nadia Boyce reports.

In recent weeks, Coca Cola began screening a television announcement on the major networks across the country telling consumers they were reducing portion sizes in response to the obesity issue.

The announcement was part of a new multi-platform campaign outlining the ways in which the beverage giant is being socially responsible and tackling the issue in Australia.

Key elements of the campaign include increased availability of smaller portion sizes, greater emphasis on low kilojoule options, and a partnership with the Bicycle Network, a Not for Profit organisation supplying bicycles to local communities.

Speaking on behalf of the brand, Phil Roberts, Commercial and Franchise Director of Coca-Cola South Pacific, positioned the campaign firmly in the CSR space.

“We believe these initiatives, as well as our existing policies and involvement in the ‘Healthier Australia Commitment’, demonstrate how serious we are about being part of the solution to obesity,” he said.

The national media was quick to pick up on the strategy, breathlessly allocating press coverage to Coke’s bold new approach.

This week Pro Bono Australia News spoke to three experts to evaluate the strategy and understand the duality arising in promotion of CSR efforts: being actually responsible and being perceived as responsible.

They include:

  • Dr Jill Klein, Professor of Management and Marketing at Melbourne Business School.
  • Professor Sandra Jones, Director of the Centre for Health Initiatives at University of Wollongong.
  • Associate Professor Timothy Gill, Principal Research Fellow at the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise & Eating Disorders at Sydney Medical School.

Responsible or Ruse?

Through a public health lens evaluating anti-obesity efficacy, experts have met the campaign with cynicism.

“From my perspective it’s not intended to have any impact on public health. It’s brand protection. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s disingenuous to market it under a health pretense,” Associate Professor Timothy Gill says.

“They shouldn’t oversell what they’re doing,” he says. “But we have to give them credit, they don’t have a great deal of room to move.”

“I’m against what they’re doing but smaller serving sizes are a positive step.”

Gill says he also lauds them for their labelling reforms to date, namely acknowledging one bottle as a single serving rather than two in the nutrition panel.

Professor Sandra Jones acknowledges the challenges in truly assessing Coke’s motives.

“I think it’s really difficult to tell sometimes if they really want to improve,” Jones says.

“At the end of the day you have to ask why they are doing it. There’s no way they would do anything that would result in them selling any less Coca Cola.”

Jones suggests that CSR campaigns may be used by companies as protection from legislation.

”They get nervous that someone will start to regulate them,” she says.

Gill agrees.

“They try and be proactive in in avoiding the imposition of regulation by appearing to regulate themselves.

“They say they don’t want people drinking more of their products but it comes back to the nature of self-promotion and commerce,” he says.

The Media Release issued by Coca Cola South Pacific was notable for emphasising the agency of the individual in making nutritional choices.

“We know moderation is a key component of an active, healthy and balanced lifestyle - and that we all need to make sensible choices to meet our individual nutrition and kilojoule needs,” it said.

Jones says any assumption on the part of corporations that if they provide sensible choices consumers will always make them is flawed.

She cites healthy fast food options as a comparison. While many chains now have salads and other nutritious options, the unhealthier items far outsell them, she says.

“The idea of ‘you do it, that’s your problem’ is fine from a purely logical perspective, but from a public health perspective, it doesn’t hold much weight,” Gill echoes.

“The aspect I’m most concerned about is when companies enter into providing more general public health information - there’s not much value in that.”

He also finds issue with Coke’s association with the Bicycle Network, and similar partnerships, like McDonalds’ affiliation with Little Athletics.

“There should be clear guidelines against allowing sponsorship,” he says.

“The worry is how sponsorships are promoted as philanthropic. Sponsorship is a marketing tool. You’re not doing it out of the goodness of your heart.”

Convincing the Consumer

While there may be room for improvement from a public health perspective, successful execution of the campaign from a branding viewpoint is a different matter.

Marketing specialist Dr Jill Klein suggests that the campaign, when viewed as a strategy to promote Coke as a socially responsible brand, could prove effective.

“Research shows it is best to engage in a campaign that makes sense to consumers. With Coke it’s good that it makes sense to address obesity. The audience can understand it.

“What makes it harder is that Coke is also part of the issue, however, if you think of alcohol companies, they have had drink driving ads that have fared quite well.” she says.

Klein uses fast food brand KFC to illustrate the importance of logic in companies aligning themselves with CSR causes. In recent years, the company has periodically marketed and sold the ‘pink bucket,’ a tub of fried chicken from which one dollar will go to Breast Cancer research.

The campaign managed to raise $315,000 for the McGrath foundation in Australia, but Klein questions its effectiveness in presenting KFC as socially conscious to consumers.

“It just didn’t make any sense,” Klein says. “Because it’s such a popular cause, there was the potential for consumers to feel like KFC were just jumping on the bandwagon.”

“If KFC had a done CSR campaign around an issue in their supply chain, like the battery chickens they have been criticised about before, it would have made a lot more sense,” she says.

Klein says that cynicism on the part of the consumer must be minimised for a successful marketing of CSR initiatives.

“What’s critical from a CSR perspective is that consumers do have to believe it’s more than just window dressing.”

“We need to look at the attributions consumers make as to the reasons the company is doing it. What tends to determine that is how the consumer felt about the brand before the campaign.”

“If you were a fan of Coke and enjoyed drinking it, you would likely be less cynical,” she says.

“Research shows that if it is both for socially responsible reasons and also for the good of the brand, that’s ok with consumers too,” she says.

Given consumers tend to accept mutually beneficial arrangements, she says, while sweeping denial of a brand protection may not be effective, combining positive marketing with messages on social benefit may be.

Backing it Up

Expert consensus was that what Coca Cola does from now on could affect the campaign as much as what has already been done.

While providing a rationale for smaller serving sizes may be wise, Klein says it is key for the company to back up their smaller offerings with price consideration.

“It’s critical what they do with the prices,” Klein says.

“Without price matching the existing sizes, consumers are far more likely to dismiss this CSR effort as an excuse to offer less product in smaller sizes for a relatively higher price,” she says.

Jones agrees.

“There’s a lot more that could be done with the pricing structure,” Jones says of encouraging consumers to make healthy choices. “Why not make diet versions cheaper?”

It continues to be important to have smaller sized portions priced at the exact same ratio as the larger serving sizes so consumers are not discouraged from purchasing bigger sizes for better value, she adds.

Gill wants the company to go a step further.

“It’s only a reasonable strategy if you then go on to withdraw the larger, competing serving sizes,” he says.

“More choice is not necessarily a good thing. Better choice is a good thing.”

Klein says that going forward, it is not beneficial for Coca Cola to appear to be spending more money telling people about what they are doing than actually doing something.

Jones agrees. “They tell you they’re fixing it but are spending millions of dollars to tell you that,” she says. “Why not invest that money in market research improving the health of the product?”

“I’m not saying they should promote their smaller servings but the focus should not be ‘look at us doing a great thing!’” she says.

“I tend to think people will always be skeptical.”

Less direct and more subtle approaches to marketing CSR efforts may improve Coke’s ability to minimise cynicism going forward, Klein says.

“Research shows that if you can perhaps co-sponsor an event, have your logo on their webpage, that’s one way to do it without looking like you’re just trying to say ‘look how great we are.’

Gill says that the future will provide crucial clues as to the company’s ongoing anti-obesity intent.

Later this year, Coca Cola will have the chance to walk the talk by voluntarily electing to adopt the government's new star-based rating system for product packaging, designed to alert consumers to the nutritional content of what they are buying.

Given that Coca Cola products are, as Gill describes ‘nutritionally redundant’, only then may we really assess whether this latest campaign is more than just pure fizz.

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