Communicators applaud Coke joining obesity debate

Corporate and consumer PR experts say Coca-Cola's decision to make itself a willing partner in the war on obesity is a smart, if overdue, communications strategy.

Coca-Cola's anti-obesity TV ad campaign has been characterized as “manipulative,” “disingenuous,” and “ridiculous” by media outlets. Nonetheless, corporate and consumer PR experts say the soft drink giant's decision to make itself a willing partner in the war on obesity is a smart, if overdue, communications strategy.

“The criticism and cynicism in the media about the ads – which may very well be valid – still doesn't change the fact that [having a stronger voice on this issue] is what Coca-Cola should be doing both as a responsible corporate citizen and in terms of issues management,” says Michael Fox, president of ICR's corporate communications group.

The role that colas plays in America's obesity problem has been in the spotlight since New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg moved to ban the sale of sodas and other sugary drinks 16 ounces and larger in fast-food restaurants, movie theaters, stadium concession stands, and other venues. The ban will be enforced beginning March 12, barring a successful legal challenge led by the American Beverage Association. Lawmakers in states such as Massachusetts and Hawaii have proposed higher taxes on the sale of sugary drinks.

“It is a very, very big issue that they need to manage, and what Coca-Cola first had to do was make themselves part of the conversation,” adds Fox. “Now that the ads have generated response on social media and in major op-eds among policy makers and pundits, they can continue that two-way dialogue.”

In the first of two TV spots entitled “Coming Together,” Coca-Cola highlighted its low- and no-calorie options and smaller portion sizes. The company has also engaged consumers online, through its magazine-style corporate website where it has asked visitors if the anti-obesity ads hit or miss the mark.

Senior executives at Coca-Cola have also spoken with key media outlets. For instance, Stuart Kronauge, general manager of sparkling beverages for Coca-Cola North America, has been interviewed by The New York Times and the Associated Press. On CNBC, Steve Cahillane, president of the Americas for Coca-Cola, said: “I wouldn't say we feel we're under attack. We just feel now is the time to step up our participation in the debate.” 

Ben Sheidler, senior manager for public affairs and communications at Coca-Cola, declined PRWeek's request for an interview about its communications strategy.

A key challenge Coca-Cola faces in the campaign is overcoming skepticism among the public and its stakeholders, says Hugh Braithwaite, president of Braithwaite Communications.

“As a father, I am a little skeptical that they are doing this for any other reason than to sell more product,” he says. “But as a PR professional, I think it was the right move.”

“Should Coca-Cola be an appropriate player in the conversation about solutions to rising obesity? In a vacuum, the answer is no,” Braithwaite adds. “But they have two big assets that companies including its competitors don't have: more than 100 years of enormous brand trust and firepower in its advertising spend to get them over that skepticism...then they can really start to shape the conversation.”

In both the “Coming Together” ad and in media interviews, Coca-Cola has urged cooperation on the issue – a smart strategy, says Jack Dougherty, president of Dougherty Dialectic. Dougherty has provided reputation management and litigation support to Fortune 500 food and beverage companies for two decades.

“The strategy of their opponents has been to isolate and marginalize the soft-drink company; they don't want them to have a seat at the table. So what Coca-Cola has done [with the ads] is dare their opponents to attack their CSR efforts,” he says. “If Coca-Cola can flush out their critics and expose them as being on the extreme end of the issue, that sort of thing becomes a win.”

He says Coca-Cola accomplished just that with one of its staunchest opponents, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, because the group showed no willingness to believe or work with the company.

In a statement posted on its website and in media interviews, the center's executive director, Michael Jacobson, called the campaign “a damage control exercise” with the intent of halting policy approaches such as taxes and serving-size caps. 

Coca-Cola also drew criticism from medical authorities and nutrition and food bloggers. In a column for The Atlantic, Ruth Faden, Wagley professor of biomedical ethics and director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, called the ad “unconscionable” because it fails to distinguish calories from sources like fruits and vegetables versus those from soft drinks.

On her popular Food Politics blog, Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition food studies and public health at New York University, wrote that “the ad is an astonishing act of chutzpah.” If Coca-Cola really wanted to prevent obesity, it would stop pricing drinks so that the largest sizes are the best value.

Patricia Groziak, executive director for nutrition and wellness at GolinHarris and also a registered dietician, says that the ads can be interpreted differently when looking at them as a dietician or a PR strategist.

Ultimately, however, she says Coca-Cola wins points for at least bringing attention to the importance of caloric in-take, a subject that is not well understood by consumers.

“Consumer surveys show that they don't even know how many calories they should take in every day, so the fact Coca-Cola is bringing attention to it is important,” says Groziak. “I think the public also recognizes voices from different parts of industry, government, and public health will ultimately help consumers put calories into context.”

As it strengthens its anti-obesity platform, Groziak suspects Coca-Cola will forge or extend partnerships with credible health experts, NGOs, and other like-minded organizations. The company already partners on various initiatives with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the American Cancer Society, among others.

Coca-Cola and the American Cancer Society, for instance, have partnered on “Choose You,” a national movement that encourages women to put their health first in the fight against cancer.

“I think this is just the beginning of more initiatives that Coca-Cola hopes will strongly resonate with consumers,” says Groziak.

Julie Batliner, MD at Carmichael Lynch Spong, adds that Coca-Cola will have to ensure its messaging extends to every facet of its business and communications strategy, from employee and stakeholder relations to media outreach, and local, on-the-ground initiatives.

If the company fails to do that, the campaign will be judged months and years from now as insincere and hollow, which would be more damaging to the brand than any short-term judgment calls, she says.

“They kicked it off with ad campaign that gave them reach and awareness,” says Batliner. “Now they have to be sure to back up what they said and support the position they've taken.”

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